The Jacobsen Committee (University of London) has announced that the winner of this year’s Jacobsen Essay competition is our very own Jorgen Dyrstad with his essay ‘Seeing and Differentiating‘.
King’s student, Samuel Kimpton-Nye, will present his work on the laws of nature and counterlegals at a graduate workshop led by Professor Kit Fine. The workshop accompanies the 3rd biennial Edgingtion Lectures, and will take place on June 3rd and 4th at the Department of Philosophy, Birkbeck College, London.
More information can be found here
Thomas Byrne, one of the department’s graduate students, has a forthcoming paper in Philosophical Studies. The abstract is below and you can read the paper here.
‘G.E. Moore said that rightness was obviously a matter of maximising plain goodness. Peter Geach and Judith Thomson disagree. They have both argued that ‘good’ is not a predicative adjective, but only ever an attributive adjective: just like ‘big.’ And just as there is no such thing as plain bigness but only ever big for or as a so-and-so, there is also no such thing as plain goodness. They conclude that Moore’s goodness is thus a nonsense. However attention has been drawn to a weakness in their arguments. Mahrad Almotahari and Adam Hosein have sought to plug that weakness. If their plug holds, then there is no goodness. Doing most of their work is the following premise: adjective φ is predicative only if it can be used predicatively in ‘x is a φ K’ otherwise it is attributive. In this paper I argue that this premise is false, that their plug does not hold and that if one is to reject plain goodness it will have to be for other reasons.’
A new reading group on the topic of acquaintance will begin this month. The organizers of the reading group intend to give particular focus to the work of John Campbell.
The first meeting will take place at noon on Monday the 11th of April. The location is the Philosophy Graduate Common Room.
For more details, contact Jørgen Dyrstad: email@example.com.
I’m very pleased to announce that Sophie Stammers (one of our current PGR students) won the 2015 teorema Essay Prize for Young Scholars on Free Will and Cognitive Science for her paper, “Situation, Reason and the Extended Agent”. Congratulations to Sophie on this wonderful achievement. Keep an eye out for her paper, which will be published in an issue of teorema very soon.
Charles Cote-Bouchard (KCL postgraduate student working in epistemology and metaethics) just received word that his paper, ‘Can the Aim of Belief Ground Epistemic Normativity?’ has been accepted for publication by Philosophical Studies. Congratulations to Charles on this fantastic achievement. Interested readers can find an early draft of the paper here.
My work on the a priori has recently led me to start looking at the literature on knowledge-how. The connections might start to become apparent as we go. The central questions here regard the nature of knowledge-how and its relation to knowledge-that—to propositional knowledge. There are two dominant views. Intellectualists have it that knowledge-how is a species of knowledge-that. Dispositionalists have it that knowledge-how is a kind of its own to be captured in terms of dispositions or abilities. I’ve become convinced that intellectualism, as stated, is false. Knowledge-how is not a species of propositional knowledge. I’m just going to assume that here. Instead I’m going to say why I think dispositionalism is problematic and gesture at another view.
Dispositionalists get into trouble given their claim that knowing how to do something just is to have some complex of dispositions. If complexes of dispositions are to be constitutive of knowledge-how, Ryle realises, they will need to be “indefinitely heterogeneous” (1949, p. 42). This is how—contra Stanley and Williamson (2001, p. 416)—dispositionalists can allow that a ski instructor can know how to do a trick that she is unable to perform. She may not be disposed to perform the trick. Still, she may be disposed to informatively explain how to do the trick in such-and-such a way, to accurately imagine performing it thus-and-so, … . Such a complex of dispositions can constitute the ski instructor’s know-how. However, the problem now is that if knowledge-how is understood in this way it becomes no good for explaining our capacities to achieve things. An object’s being roundexplains its being disposed to roll, to leave round impression, to fit snugly through round holes, … . If instead we say that its being round just is its having this indefinite complex of dispositions then its being so disposed cannot be explained by its being round. Similarly our skier’s knowing how to do a trick explains her being disposed to informatively explain how to and to accurately imagine performing it. If we instead say, with the dispositionalist, that her knowing how just is her having such dispositions then her being so disposed cannot be explained by her know-how as it should be.
It instead looks like knowledge-how needs to be constituted by states which are apt to guide action and to be active in bringing about behaviour. By playing such a role knowledge-how would be apt to explain our dispositions. What could play such a role except knowledge-that as the intellectualist has it? Bengson and Moffett (2011) attempt to deliver here by suggesting that “conceptions” are constitutive of knowledge-how. Conceptions are contentful mental states which we are not conscious of (they are subdoxastic states) and are apt to guide action. But if having conceptions is constitutive of someone’s knowing how to do a trick what one Earth is their content? Bengson and Moffett, understandably, don’t have anything to say on this matter.
It seems like knowledge of how to do a trick would be a bad place to start anyway. A vast amount of knowledge-how will be involved such as the knowledge-how it takes children a long time to acquire: how to control one’s limbs and navigate one’s environment. There is a much simpler case of interest to me: inference. Knowing how to do tricks facilitates skiers’ doing so. Similarly knowing how to infer facilitates our transmitting warrant with inferences and coming to know the consequences of our suppositions. Being warranted to employ an inference such that one can transmit warrant with it is to have a kind of knowledge-how. What the content of the relevant conceptions in such cases might be is still hard to say. Peacocke (2003) has it that the conceptions which guide our inferences are those that are constitutive of our possessing the concepts involved. He gives these a definition-like structure. Possession of chair, he suggests, is constituted by possession of a conception with content that x is a chair iff x has a back; has a seat; … . But if conceptions need to be such definition-like states to play the guiding role in question then they will rarely be plausible posits. Fortunately it seems like we needn’t go so far. What follows is a toy example of how things might go instead.
Suppose that some subdoxastic state of mine associates ‘scarlet’ with some remembered or imagined paradigm scarlet things and some similarity considerations. This state is what (usually) determines whether ‘scarlet’ seems to apply in a case and thereby looks apt to explain my largely correct use of ‘scarlet’. The state makes attribution of the concept scarlet look appropriate and is thus plausibly constitutive of my possessing the concept. The same goes for red. (This isn’t completely speculative—it’s rather borrowing from one approach to concept possession in cognitive science: prototype theory). These states also look apt to secure warranted inference and thus to be a constitutive of knowledge-how to infer. Suppose I believe that a is scarlet and consider whether a is red. a will subdoxastically have been taken to be like my scarlet paradigms, all of which will be red, and thus the conception constitutive of red possession could make it seem like a must be also red. This could bring about the inference from a’s being scarlet to a’s being red. If it does this it could do so in a way that is pretty reliable. You might think more is required for the inference to be one I transmit warrant with. I might need some conscious appreciation of the inference’s legitimacy. But there is scope to accommodate this on the view in question too. The subdoxastic states which bring about the inference could make it seem appropriate. Such seemings, when appropriately caused by states constitutive of concept possession, look apt to amount to conscious appreciation of the force or legitimacy of my inference.
I’ve presented a speculative and simplified sketch of how a conception could bring about warrant transmitting inference—a phenomenon I take to be an instance of exhibition of knowledge-how. On this sketch knowledge-how isn’t a species of knowledge-that. But we can see nonetheless see how knowledge-how is apt to bring about intelligent action and thus to explain our being disposed to exhibit it. Knowledge-how is constituted by contentful subdoxastic states apt to explain its manifestations.
Bengson, J., & Moffett, M. A. (2011). Nonpropositional Intellectualism. In J. Bengson & M. A. Moffett (Eds.), Knowing How (pp. 161–195). Oxford University Press.
Peacocke, C. (2003). Implicit Conceptions, Understanding, and Rationality. In M. Hahn & B. Ramberg (Eds.), Reflections and Replies: Essays on the Philosophy of Tyler Burge (pp. 117–152). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. University of Chicago Press.
Stanley, J., & Williamson, T. (2001). Knowing How. Journal of Philosophy, 98(8), 411–444.
Copyright © David Russell Jenkins
I want to sketch out a familiar idea from Bernard Williams’s ethics, and then offer a problem, alongside some things we might say in reaction to it. I’m far from well versed on the literature here, and the earlier stuff, which I present in a fairly brief manner, is what I know more about – but I don’t think that people will be as interested by a fairly arcane piece about the distinction between commitments and ground projects. So, although I won’t say much new here, I think it opens up plenty of avenues for debate. The sort of problem I’m considering, which turns around value pluralism, could affect others, such as Isaiah Berlin, and if anyone could point out avenues to explore, that would be good. But, really, the point of this is meant to be getting some discussion going – so that’s what I hope to do.
In his critique of utilitarianism, Bernard Williams offers a couple of examples. Jim can shoot an Indian to save nineteen, or not shoot and twenty will die. I think his other example, George, gets the point across in a slightly clearer way, so let’s go with that. George is a scientist, he’s just finished his PhD, and he’s pretty poor. He’s offered a job. If he takes the job, he’ll be able to support his family (his financial straits are causing problems for them), but the job is in chemical and biological weaponry, and George isfundamentally opposed to working in that industry. If he takes the job then he’ll not only be able to support his family, but will prevent it going to a warmongering zealot – who would greatly profit the cause of chemical weaponry by working overtime (which George could avoid). So, the utilitarian says George obviously should take the job, since it will maximise happiness: his family will do better, and fewer people will die since the zealot won’t be making chemical weapons into even greater killing machines.
But Williams thinks that George should be able to say “No” to the job. George has a commitment to pacifism, and that’s not the sort of thing he can just throw away. (Elsewhere he talks of ground projects, and categorical desires, but the distinction between these three things is messy at best, so let’s just work with commitments.) In short, commitments are vital to anything like a valuable human life. Without them, life is not worth living. (Elena Makropulos, in his famous paper on Death, has no commitments, and is utterly bored.) Basically, and this is far more complex and deserves far more space than I’ll give it, Williams’s point is that utilitarianism doesn’t deal with proper human agents. Utilitarianism doesn’t let you keep any commitments, because anything you might seem to be committed to cannot really be something you’re committed to, since as a good utilitarian you have to be willing to abandon it whenever doing so would increase happiness – and commitments aren’t abandonable in such a way. But commitments are a vital part of a valuable human lives, so utilitarianism cannot really account for valuable human lives.
There are two other things in Williams that are relevant here. First off, his internalism about reasons. This is the thought that one cannot have a reason to do something, unless one, in some way, wants to do it. So, if Owen doesn’t want to join the army (nor does he have any desires that, to be satisfied, require him joining the army), then he has no reason to. Second off, you get throughout Williams the idea that there is a plurality of values, and that there can be tragic conflict between values – such that there is no way of avoiding awful problems (see, for instance, Moral Luck). The plurality about values gives us something else: that it’s fine to go against these purportedly-moral demands. There are more values than the merely moral, and we would much rather live in a world full of many different values than just the one: be that moral, aesthetic, or whatever. So, sometimes we might do something that is morally bad, but aesthetically good – but that’s better (in some sense) than always doing the morally good thing.
But then we get some sort of problem. It’s supposedly fine for George to go by his commitment to pacifism, against the moral demand for the greater good. But what about a Himmler figure? Himmler had a commitment to antisemitism. Why might we think it is ok for George to stick to his pacifism, for Anna Karenina to abandon her child in the name of Love, and for people to spend their time in galleries rather than working for the poor, but be repulsed if someone like Himmler offered the thought: “Ah, but genocide is what makes my life worth living!”? What’s more, we want to be able to say something to Himmler – what can the Williamsian say?
Now, one line I used to think was worth pursuing, but am no longer so sure of, focuses on Jim. Jim, if he sticks to his pacifism, condemns twenty people to death. Himmler, if he sticks to his form of antisemitism, condemns millions. Perhaps we might want to say something about expected-sacrifice. We might say that abandoning one’s commitment is something like suicide. Now, sacrificing yourself to save twenty people might be the sort of thing we think is supererogatory – but we might think it’s expected that you would do so if it were to save hundreds, thousands, or millions; so this might legitimate Jim’s actions, but not Himmler’s. But that won’t do – since it would rule out George refusing the job, since his actions might, in some sense, lead to the deaths of many people (think Oppenheimer). So, I’m not sure this is the way we can go.
Now, although there can be no recourse to some free-floating external reason that bans Himmler from setting out on his genocide, we might be able to show that Himmler has a clash of desires, or has got the facts wrong. Perhaps he wants to do the best by the human race, and also eliminate the Jews. If we can show him that Jews are part of the human race, and that his desire to do best by the human race outweighs his desire to kill the Jews, then we might be able to get him to cease his evil ways.
But if he’s utterly set on genocide, and there are no competing desires, and we can’t show our Himmler that he’s gotten something factual wrong, then what might the Williamsian say? Well, we can’t reason with Himmler. But we might be able to use other persuasive techniques – like calling him “cruel”. Though, this will only work if Himmler cares for what we say to him. But, perhaps we don’t even want to reason with this sort of figure. If we can’t reason, and he goes off and tries to complete his project, what can we do? So long as there’s one of us who doesn’t much mind it – who doesn’t have some very strong commitment against just-killing – we might find someone willing to put a bullet in Himmler: would there be anything wrong with that?
But what gives us a right to decide which other commitments we want to exist alongside? What I’ve just said concerns motivating Himmler, trying to get him back to the right side. What justifies our insistence on our values over his? And that seems to be a real problem: once you get rid of the idea that there might be one overarching value, then how to decide between others, and how to decide whether or not something is valuable or is utterly awful and should form no part of the things we pursue, becomes really, really, hard.
Someone of an Aristotelian frame of mind might want to say that we could look to a plurality of values that are constrained by what it means to be a good human – there are plenty of questions to be begged here, but it’s a path that might be worth pursuing. Or, and this is something I want to look at more, we might want to say that some things might be worth pursuing even if they cause great harm, but what we can’t do is something evil. Perhaps some bad things realise other values, or even are just bad, but aren’t the sort of thing that pose much overall threat; but evil things are totally abhorrent and in some way infect other things. But that, as it stands, sounds a bit twee and needs a lot of work – and it seems like it might fall back on some Aristotelian considerations.
Or maybe there just is no way to decide. There’s nothing that makes our values better than Himmler’s. So if we were to appeal to some independent omniscient court, there would be no settlement. The only thing we can do is persuade, cajole, and fight. But that doesn’t do justice to our view that we’ve got something right and he’s got something wrong – though, nor does it do justice to his view that he’s got it right and we’ve got it wrong. Unsettling. But perhaps it’s a bullet I might bite.
Anyway, I think the Williams line against utilitarianism (and, really, all moral systems) is persuasive. And I’m a big fan of a plurality of values. But I’m still a little stuck, and not sure where to go when we face a Himmler figure. What puts us in a better position than someone who seems to say “Evil, be thou my good.”?
Williams, B A O. “A Critique of Utilitarianism.” In Utilitarianism for and against, by B A O Williams and J J C Smart, 75–150. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
———. “Internal and External Reasons.” In Moral Luck, 101–13. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
———. “Moral Luck.” In Moral Luck, 20–39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
———. “Persons, Character and Morality.” In Moral Luck, 1–19. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
———. “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.” In Problems of the Self, 82–100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.