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. 



4 thoughts on “The decisive conjuring trick has been made**

  1. Hi,

    I would rather say that the kind of problem Thompson raises has been considered, but (rightly of wrongly) people think it’s not much of a problem. First, they don’t have to hold that one can express propositions only with that-clauses, nor that only that-clauses express propositions. The syntactic doxa is that there is a reflexive pronoun in the deep structure of the sentence: it is actually understood as “I want PRO to turn on the light”, analogous to “I want Bob to turn on the light” where “PRO” is anaphoric on the subject of the verb. And one may argue that this “PRO to turn on the light” expresses a proposition. Second, it’s been recognized in the 70s that first-person thoughts have special characteristics, for instance there’s a difference between “John believes John to be rich” and “John believes himself to be rich” and that they deserved a special treatment. John Perry (the pb of the essential indexical) and David Lewis (attitudes de re and de se) (and also Chisholm) offered one each, which involved more sophisticated notions of propositions. On Lewis’ view a de se proposition is in fact a property that the subject self-ascribes in belief: for instance, “being rich” in “S believes herself to be rich”. This is transferable to the “wants to be rich” case quite straightforwardly, or so it seems.

    I’d then say that the reason Thompson argument is (perhaps) not widely noticed is not so much because it goes against orthodoxy but because it (apparently) fails to discuss the way orthodoxy tries to solve it. In short, you don’t attack a paradigm from the outside only.

    A last comment: “We all know that science operates that way, and actually in spite of that we do get progress in science.” I should note that in Kuhn’s view it’s not so much “in spite of” but “because of” that. (It’s pretty clear in the chapter on pre-normal science and the one on normal science of his book.)

    Thanks for your blog, which i follow regularly; especially for the all-male philosophy conference watch!


  2. Julien, thanks for your really interesting comment. Somehow it ended up in the spam box, and I just found it. I think the points you make are obviously important, though I’m not sure I agree. Also, it is now late. So two quick points:
    1. I realize I am not clear what the historical Kuhn thought about progress in science that is independent of any one paradigm. I’m not sure at all, though, that he thinks there’s any simple appeal to progress, especially of the sort I was somewhat controversially claiming. I think, though, that my “despite” was infelicitous, and perhaps due to a forced parallel between science and (some) philosophy.

    2. It would be unfortunate if Thompson’s point was really just an ordinary language one. I explicitly left out part of the Thompson argument, which concerns the difference between perfectives and imperfectives, and, of course, there are other parts to his theory. The most important part of his theory is that it is actions that rationalize actions, not desires. So the fuller point has got to be, as I understood it, that when understood in terms of, for example, a self-ascription of a desire, the imperfective that is expressed “I want to go to the market” won’t have the right rationalizing relation. I hope this can be defended. But I could be wrong, obviously. particularly this late.

    Thanks so much for your comments!

  3. Kuhn didn’t think progress in science was possible without a paradigm, unless you count actually laying out the paradigm itself as progress. (I can think of an argument that it actually couldn’t count, but that’s too far off-topic.) I don’t remember any pithy phrase for it, but paradigm-less science is just stumbling around randomly, completely without any sense of what’s valuable or important or interesting. The paradigm gives normal science the structure required for progress to be possible, hence normal science is progressive because it’s constrained by a paradigm.

    That said, I’m not quite sure what the overall argument of this post is supposed to be. Because of a prevailing assumption that there are propositional attitudes where (arguably) no propositional attitudes can be found, our criteria for good philosophy are gendered? At the very least, I’m missing a crucial premise or two.

    You might just be trying to argue that we’re not aware of all the assumptions built in to our standards for good philosophy, and hence some may be gendered, no matter how upright our intentions. I completely agree with this line of thought, but I don’t think you need to go through Thompson to make your point. Philosophers just need to be reminded that not many people besides Descartes have thought we enjoy some kind of perfect and complete awareness of the processes by which we form judgments.

  4. Noumena, thanks for asking. I’m not sure it’s an argument, exactly,and it isn’t about some views being gendered. Rather, it observes that much philosophy is held in place by agreement on basic theses, which stop being the objects of inquiry. This happens in a particular kind of social context, where people get favored and priviledged in ways that may be as fallible as the basic premises. Women notoriously have historically gotten the short end of the stick in this arrangement.

    So choosing those who emerge at the top of this process may not be choosing something like the best philosophers.

    I don’t have much time to continue. But here’s one other observation: sometimes being selected as the best and brightest acts against a person and they freeze. Or someone has a terrible experience at a conference and it negatively affects their work. Negative and positive social factors really afffect where one ranks in “ask-ability” for conferences. We might keep this in mind when we contrast asking because of philosophical excellence vs. other factors.

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