Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thoughts, Propositions, and Animals

I recently read Donald Davidson's "Rational Animals" (after re-reading Norman Malcolm's "Thoughtless Brutes"). Davidson's argument that possessing a single belief requires the possession of many beliefs, and that to be a thinking (rational) being requires language--being a "communicator" in the "full linguistic sense"--is rather impressive. I am not sure, however, what the "full linguistic sense" is, and Davidson's argument doesn't entail that (other) animals don't "think"--but that any thinking animals must be linguistic. (Do Wittgenstein's builder's think?)

Connecting thought to language is tempting. [Clarification: read that as taking thought to depend necessarily upon language.] But it strikes me that this really is a temptation. One reason to think so is that we have high-functioning autistic people like Temple Grandin who, to hear them tell it, insist that they think in non-propositional ways for the most part. And if animals that lack language still think in some sense, it is then not surprising that it would be more like what Grandin describes--and this would also enable us to make sense of why it is that her autism enables her to understand animals (or, see things as they do) better than most people.

Here's the main thing that strikes me about any Davidson-style argument: this whole way of approaching the issue privileges the proposition, and may even assume that all thinking--indeed all intentional states (all forms of thought)--are propositional. As I've seen others suggest, the temptation to think this may have to do with the tendency to begin analyses of intentional states by looking at belief, which seems inherently propositional (or incredibly easy to translate into Propositionalist language) as anything.

But as Alex Grzankowski argues in his forthcoming paper "Not All Attitudes are Propositional," Propositionalism runs into a great amount of trouble when confronted with the task of analyzing other intentional states (like fearing, liking, etc.) in terms of propositions. I'm not well-versed in this area of philosophy, but Grzankowski seems right, or on the right track. We like objects (or individuals), not propositions. (Well, we can like propositions, too, I guess, but the point is that in liking my wife, I like her, not some proposition or other.)

The next question I have (and here I have more reading to do) is how we might make sense of "animal belief" without appealing to propositions. I suspect this is related to why Malcolm talks about his dog "thinking" that the cat is up the tree, rather than of his dog believing it. In these cases it seems ok to say that our beliefs are about objects, but then we will also say that we believe certain propositions about those objects to be true. It might be that we could say that animals don't have beliefs (if we agree with Davidson that belief is inherently bound up with language), but that animals nevertheless make (and have?) observations. Malcolm's dog observes the cat go up the tree. And that observation, combined with a desire to eat the cat (the intentional state here can be non-propositional, the desire is for the cat, not for some relatable proposition), explain why the dog barks up the tree. Of course, we might ask: but is that thinking? Malcolm says, well, sure, my dog thinks the cat is up the tree. (That's why he's still barking, even though the cat isn't in that tree any more.) How do we get from observes the cat up the tree (or going up the tree) to thinks the cat is up the tree without attributing propositional content to the dog? Could we say that the dog continues to affirm a previously observed state of affairs while, not being a linguistic creature, cannot be understood as affirming the corresponding proposition? At any rate (since I'm in over my head here), could it not be that the dog thinks (believes) something about the world without believing any propositions (propositions are about the world, not part of it here)? If intentional states aren't all propositional, then must belief always take a propositional form? (Could that explain why we have thoughts that seem impossible to put correctly into words?)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Patience, Courage, and Facing Death

(Another excerpt, along similar lines as the most recent previous post.)

[In reflecting upon the ability of the courageous to face death...] we should think not only of those who risk death for a noble cause, but also of those who struggle against suffering and affliction even though death is inevitable. We attribute courage to those who contend with terminal illnesses without despair, who seek to live out the remainder of their lives as best they can, who, as Dylan Thomas urged his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” There is of course a way of reading Thomas’ poem such that raging against the dying of the light reflects a refusal to accept one’s mortality (or such that Thomas’ advice reflects his own refusal to accept his father’s mortality). Let us, for now, not read it that way, but rather see Thomas’ poem as a celebration of life, of the idea that even in one’s dying hour, there is life to be lived, words to be said, gestures to be made which can have a significance that death cannot invalidate. To acknowledge that is not to deny death; it is instead to call to mind that one is not yet dead, that dying itself is part of life, and that one can continue to live even as one is dying. In this way, it is possible that dying itself can, in the terms set forth by Callan, take the form of a moral task.

I make these suggestions with some hesitation. What do I know about dying (or, for that matter, suffering, really)? Rather than pushing the argument, again, it is surely better to let those whose examples inspire us speak for themselves. [Note: I make this same suggestion in connection with the idea that I would rather defer to the witness of Viktor Frankl than simply provide a priori arguments that great suffering can be endured with patience.] However, perhaps we can also get some glimpse of how the strengths that inform our ideas about courage, fortitude, and patience are related to the possibility of dying well by considering our desires about death, about what kind of death we would prefer. Perhaps many of us hope that death will come swiftly, unannounced, like a bolt of lightning—that in such a swift death we might avoid the task of enduring a protracted, slow march to death, and thus not have to confront the question of how we ourselves might hold up in the face of such a task. Palliative care can manage pain, we know, but presumably not eliminate it, and reflecting upon the gradual loss of our physical and cognitive capabilities can be frightening, or at least disconcerting. It is in this sense—and not only in the hero’s sense—that we can say that facing death well requires courage. And while “raging” against the dying of the light presents us with heroic imagery, reflecting upon the prospect of a slow death reminds us that this is not the courage of the charge, but rather the courage of endurance and fortitude.

The[se] considerations [...] suggest that growth in fortitude, in courage, cannot be entirely isolated from growth in patience. Here, I disagree with one claim that Callan makes about the blind man he imagines, when he suggests that as long as this man has no patience for the moral task of accepting his blindness, “no amount of courage or fortitude can compensate for the absence of that virtue.”[1] To distinguish fortitude from patience in this way seems to assume that fortitude is primarily toughness of mind or a kind of imperturbability, but then we can ask what it is that underwrites this mental toughness. Then we must either say that fortitude involves a kind of insensibility, which explains why provocations and pains don’t disturb the individual, or that fortitude involves a kind of tolerance of such provocations and pains in which the person really does feel them, but is not unsettled by them or, in other words, maintains him or herself in a state of self-possession. If fortitude is insensibility, then it seems hard to say that this is a virtue, since the insensible person does not actually endure anything—he simply does not feel what most of us would.[2] (Think for example of a person who is incapable of feeling pain.) And in many cases, such insensibility would be crippling rather than enabling. But if, on the other hand, we say that fortitude is a function of one’s ability to tolerate provocation and disturbance, then we seem to be speaking about one of the aspects of patience. What looks to us like fortitude, if not underwritten by the patient tolerance of such adversity, might just be inner deadness. And in that respect, we can agree with Callan that the blind man cannot come to terms with his blindness by simply making himself numb to the psychological pain that the fact of his blindness causes him. This, we might say, is a way of avoiding the problem, rather than confronting it. Coming to terms with his blindness, exposing himself to that psychological pain, will no doubt take courage—to face the fearful. But it should now be clear that since facing what is fearful in such cases is itself an activity that takes place in time, over time, and which cannot be separated from the pain and suffering that such a confrontation may involve, the courageous act itself cannot be undertaken without patience.

[1] Eamonn Callan, "Patience and Courage," Philosophy 68, (1993), p. 526. [2] REF Scarre and my stoicism paper.

[2] Cf. my discussion of Scarre's (I think failed) attempt to distinguish fortitude and patience in "In Defense of Patience."

Friday, July 20, 2012

Patience and Courage

At first glance, it might seem that patience and courage are dispositions that tend in different directions, reflecting different strengths. If we are asked to imagine exemplars of each of these virtues, we probably call two very different individuals to mind—the courageous person imposing, heroic, probably male, and the patient person quiet, reserved, quite likely female. (After all, Ancient Greek courage simply was the virtue of manliness (andreia), and the Victorians used to name their daughters Patience.) Some of our images of courage may even positively conflict with some of our images of patience, with the courageous person insisting upon action while the patient person implores him to wait.

In his wonderful paper, "Patience and Courage" (Philosophy 68(266), 1993), Eamonn Callan begins with a sort of thought experiment intended to capture our intuitive--though he thinks mistaken--sense of the relative significance of patience and courage:
Suppose your friends had to ascribe a single vice to you in large measure, along with any virtues that could be coherently combined with that salient vice. Suppose further that the vice had to be either cowardice or impatience. Which would you choose? (p. 523)
Callan suspects that "almost everyone would choose impatience without hesitation," because a coward strikes us as an unreliable kind of person, and impatience itself might in some cases be a good thing, e.g. impatience with tyranny and injustice. Callan goes on to argue against this intuitive response, in that it underestimates the need for patience (an idea I have explored in previous posts), and also suggests that a more nuanced thinking about courage and patience shows that these virtues do not essentially conflict. This should not be so surprising if we think, as Aquinas does, of patience as a part of fortitude, and recognize fortitude itself as the core of courage (or, as synonymous with courage). Of course, when we speak of fortitude, we speak of endurance, and talk of courage (or bravery) may seem instead to call to mind the "courage of the charge." But charging, as Tim O'Brien notes in his memoir on Vietnam, is only a tiny slice of bravery--once one has charged into danger, there is much to be endured.

Or consider this perhaps surprising remark from Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart: "Is patience not precisely that courage which voluntarily accepts unavoidable suffering? The unavoidable is just the thing which will shatter courage" (p. 173). Interestingly (as the translator notes), the Danish for patience taalmod contains the term for courage (mod). (Literally, taalmod is "enduring courage.")

Kierkegaard connects patience to "unavoidable suffering" and thus implies that courage differs in that in courage we choose to put ourselves in the way of danger and adversity for a noble cause. And he discusses how it may seem then that there can be no virtue in enduring adversity that is unavoidable and which, it seems, cannot be chosen. (If it's unavoidable, then there seems to be no real choice.) Here, he imagines the mocking voice of someone who says that this "patience" is merely "making a virtue out of necessity," and Kierkegaard replies, yes, that's exactly it! His point is that merely being saddled with unavoidable suffering or adversity does not imply that we will, as it were, shoulder that adversity in such a way that we remain committed to the Good. We may despair, or become bitter and resentful, angry at the world. Of course, it may be that since Kierkegaard is a theist, he can assume that there is some way in which any suffering thrown at us can possibly be endured well. Non-theists may not have grounds for the same hope. But let me put that, for now, to the side. (I hope to write a chapter about this issue in the future.)

Callan discusses a case that goes to Kierkegaard's point: a man loses his sight, and vacillates between despair and rage, who thinks that the possibility of a good life has vanished. It is not that he fails to learn how to get around in the world in spite of his blindness, but his life is devoid of all hope and joy because of the deep resentment he has about having become blind. He refuses to accept this unavoidable part of his life. Callan says, "The blind man in my story has no patience for the moral task his blindness has set him, and no amount of courage or fortitude can compensate for the absence of that virtue" (p. 526).

Now here, there are interpretive difficulties, since I suggested above that we might see courage and patience as linked by fortitude. Here we might take Callan to be treating fortitude as a kind of thickness of skin, the stoniness we might ascribe to the Stoic sage: he is in despair, but doesn't show it. I have argued in my essay "In Defense of Patience" (newly revised as of yesterday), that perhaps we should question the idea that fortitude and patience can be pulled apart very far, that we should not reduce fortitude to the external appearance. (Otherwise, we can't distinguish genuine fortitude and endurance from mere psychic deadness.) Callan's point--at any rate--is that the possibility of this man's seeing and seeking Good in his life depends upon his coming to accept his blindness. Why call that patience?

Perhaps what I said about love and patience in a previous post provides part of an answer, especially if we can translate some of what I said about learning to love another person into talk of learning to love one's situation. (This is what Chris Cowley's "Learning to Love" is all about, in Philosophical Topics 38(1), 2010.) Here, we come to accept the distance between our new condition and our previous one, and re-commit to living well (and not merely, as Cowley discusses, "making the best of it").

We can call this patience, but at the same time, I think we can see, pace Callan to some extent, that such a process may in any number of cases also involve the kind of strength we describe as courage. People who are seriously injured and require extensive physical rehabilitation are sometimes praised for their courage in their efforts to endure the problems caused by their injuries, and to re-learn what they can, and to learn how to compensate for the abilities they have lost. Why call this courageous? First, there is the great endurance involved. Second, in such circumstances, we may be tempted to despair, to feel sorry for ourselves, and even be afraid to face our condition, afraid of failing, afraid to learn what our new physical limitations are, and afraid to think about living our lives, or returning to our everyday lives, beset with the problems incurred through our injuries.

If we think of courage primarily as the (voluntary) facing of fears and dangers, then courage is involved in facing the fears above, but the need for patience is not very far behind. This isn't peculiar to this example, since many courageous acts are extended in time. Indeed, focusing on courageous acts that happen in an instant may obscure that many of our actions are in fact chains of action, stretches of activity, oriented toward some goal. Within such a stretch of time, the difference between a courageous and a rash action may come down to one's ability to wait and endure the anticipation of setting out into "positive" action. (And so, in many sports, great athletes are praised for their ability to "wait for the game to come to them"--not to take bad swings or shots or to throw bad punches. Consider how Kobe Bryant will sometimes bide his time for three quarters only to dominate the final twelve minutes, or Ali's notorious "rope-a-dope" strategy for fatiguing his opponents. [Not that we should exactly recommend Ali's strategy to young boxers, for unfortunately obvious reasons of long-term health.])

So, courage and patience turn out not to be foes, or to show that there is disharmony amongst the virtues. And again, we see how in its quiet, unassuming way, patience reveals itself to be something of a "silent partner" as we seek to develop other virtues and strengths.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Wittgenstein in Haiku

The series continues, I guess. (I just feel like posting something and am right in the middle of, or beginning, a few lines of thought. So this will have to do for now...)

Early Wittgenstein

The world is all that
is the case. That's nonsense. But
what else can one say?

Later Wittgenstein

There is no beetle
in your box. Look and see. I
still think you've got soul.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Patience and Love

Here is another excerpt, taken from the end of a reflection on the relation between patience and love, which began with some reflections upon the meaning of the well-worn line that "love is patient." Hopefully, it's clear enough that this discussion isn't primarily about, as it were, "feelings" (or that way of talking about love, though the development of this sort of love may indeed lead to a change in one's feelings toward another person). I don't know to what extent this manages to avoid lapses into wishful thinking or comments welcome. UPDATE: it may help to look at the second of the comments to this post, in which I supply some further (rough) paragraphs that immediately precede the line of thought here in the post.

...To grow in patience for this colleague [who we deeply dislike, but will have to work with closely for a long time] might be understood as the movement away from the attitude that I am “stuck” with this person toward the attitude that I am here with this person and must share a significant part of my life with him (or her). When we are stuck with another person—when that is our primary orientation to the relationship—there will always be, at least in the back of our minds, the question of getting out, and so our attention, and thus our patience, will remain divided—or as above, conditional. Sartre’s, “Hell is other people,” captures the spirit of this attitude although he wants to stress, of course, that ultimately there is “No exit.” We are stuck. But it is one thing to remind us that we are social beings—that our lives are lives with others—and quite another thing to frame that point in terms of our being stuck, because that image practically begs for the interpretation that, since the ideal would be to get unstuck but we cannot do that, we can only “make the best of it.” Perhaps this is, in large part, due to Sartre’s view that love is an “impossible project” which contains “the seed of its own destruction,” because it desires both to possess and to know the other (the beloved), which are contradictory aims (because the first involves objectifying the other, while the second requires regarding the other as a subject who is independent of my will).

One way of avoiding (or escaping) Sartre’s hell is to envision love, as Weil suggests, as unpossessive, unimposing: “To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.”[1] Love, thus conceived, is not an attempt to possess the other, or to impose one’s will upon the other. Caring with love for another is not a matter of imposing one’s will; rather, it is the enactment of patient attention toward the other. Through the eyes of loving patience, we see our relationships with others who enter, by choice or chance, into our lives as part of the fabric of our own lives. To be at home with ourselves thus requires us to find a way to be at home with the others who are part of our lives. This is not to deny that we may begin with the thought that we are “stuck” with the other person—whether this is because we find ourselves the lone survivors of a shipwreck, stranded on a desert island, or because we have started a family together, and cannot take as a serious option the possibility of divorcing or otherwise leaving the other person.[2] In such cases, patience may begin as patience with the situation, as “making the best of it” (viz. enduring the other person), but if the best outcome is the one in which we come to find ourselves fully at home with the other person, then it seems we can only attain the best outcome if we can learn to love the other person. That is, if we think that we are “making the best of it” while refusing any attempt to learn (patiently) to love the other person, then there is a sense in which we are not truly making the best of it.

Learning to love the other thus presents itself as the ideal toward which we can (and perhaps ought to) strive, in our relationships with others. Progress toward this ideal is made by way of patience—not merely as endurance and fortitude, tolerance of the other’s disagreeable traits, but as attention to who this person is, and what has made this person that way. Such loving attention is prior to, and makes possible, effective loving action, since effective action requires knowledge of the other. An obvious obstacle to such attention is egoism, self-absorption, which seeks to impose its own will on the other, its own vision of how or what the other person should be. Genuine attention to the actual other militates against this imposition of oneself, and enables one to recognize, and accept, that since the other person is a separate reality, there is no guarantee that one’s own efforts at loving attention and care will bring about positive changes in the one we love. The ideal of “unconditional love” does not even depend upon the expectation of such changes, and we have not only the examples of parents who lovingly care for their afflicted children and grown children who lovingly care for their declining parents (afflicted with diseases such as Alzheimer’s), but also the examples of saintly people, like the nun Raimond Gaita describes in A Common Humanity, who visited and treated with a pure and non-condescending love the most afflicted and abandoned patients at the psychiatric hospital he worked at as a teen. Such examples, and others, show that love is capable of spanning what otherwise seems like vast and unbridgeable distances and that, as Gaita stresses, love can illuminate the humanity of an individual in ways that philosophical concepts and theories cannot. That was the effect of the nun’s loving attention to the patients upon him. For similar reasons, Iris Murdoch suggests that the basic reason why love—and the patient attention that characterizes it—is a virtue is because love has the power to attune us to reality, to disclose truth to us.[3] In impatience, we fall short of perfect love, or simply refuse to love, and in doing so, we turn away from the reality of others (and of whatever else in the world can be loved) and retreat into ourselves and the imaginary world of our own wishes or fantasies or consolations...

[1] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (London: Routledge, 2002 [1952]), p. 65.
[2] Cf. Christopher Cowley, "Learning to Love," Philosophical Topics 38.1 (2010). [Cowley discusses not learning to love another person, but rather learning to love a situation of permanent adversity.]
[3] See Murdoch's The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 2001 [1971]).

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Philosophy: Traditional and Experimental Readings

I just received notice of a new intro to philosophy reader from OUP, Philosophy: Traditional and Experimental Readings, edited by Fritz Allhoff, Ron Mallon, and Shaun Nichols. The table of contents looks quite interesting, and I may be looking for a new book in the near future. (I'm very peeved about the new edition of Kessler's Voices of Wisdom--very few changes except for the addition of completely pointless color inserts that do nothing but drive up the cost.) The book I currently use is much more "multicultural" and I make some use of that aspect (and it also has very good introductions). But I like OUP products because they're generally good (enough) and the price is usually more right than with other publishers.

The way the book is organized is kind of (not incredibly) funky--which might be good--although one could always complain about what is left out. (And that, no doubt, is dictated in this case by what philosophical topics have received attention and been written about by x-phi folks.)

"Experimental Readings" might be fun. Even though I'm not myself an armchair-burner. Might be an interesting and different way to challenge students to think beyond their initial responses and "intuitions." But I wonder whether such a book might be, as it were, "too fashionable"--too wedded to a still relatively recent hot trend. And whether adopting a book like this already does too much in the way of communicating the idea (which I don't tend to agree with) that philosophy is a "science." ("Experimental" being in the title might be a problem here...but then again, this could be a good way to start various conversations about philosophical method...)

Well, I requested an examination copy, and perhaps I'll follow up on this once I've had a closer look.