Kant, other minds and intersecting issues…
Interview by Richard Marshall.
‘If you deny that Kant thought that perceptual consciousness constitutively depends on the understanding – if you think instead that Kant allowed that we could be perceptually presented with empirical particulars independent of the use of any concepts – then that looks to make possible a rapprochement between Kant and naïve realism.‘
‘People perceive patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) as having less mental capacity than the dead, that we think of them as ‘more dead than dead’. That’s surprising, to say the least. Don’t we ordinarily think of death as bringing to an end a subject’s mental capacities? In which case, how can there be people who have less mental capacity than the dead?‘
‘Imagine finishing Anna Karenina and being asked: does Anna really care for her son? In answering that question, we think back to the characterisation of Anna’s relationship with her son; we think of the things she does and whether they can be explained as resulting from her love for him. We can disagree about the answer. But it would be odd to answer ‘No’ to the question on the basis that Anna dies at the end of the novel, so is therefore incapable of loving anyone.‘
Anil Gomes is Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Trinity College, Oxford and an Associate Professor in Philosophy in the Faculty of Philosophy in the University of Oxford. His main research interests are in the philosophy of mind and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and, in particular, on issues which arise at their intersection. Here he discusses Kant’s uninterested in knowledge of the empirical world, the Transcendental deduction, whether Kant was a naive realist, some issues of other minds, the role of testimony in this, the mental states of people in persistent vegetative states, and whether philosophy – and Kant – has anything to offer in the domain of studying the mind. Start off the new year with a leap into the funky depths…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Anil Gomes: The idiosyncracies of the British educational system, as much as anything else. When I applied to universities, you were only allowed to make six choices, one of which could be Oxford or Cambridge. I wanted to study politics – I’d been brought up in a left-wing household in a city which prided itself on its radical heritage – so five of my six choices were for politics courses. But at Oxford the only way to study politics was through a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. So I applied for that, and started the degree expecting to concentrate on politics. I soon found that I enjoyed and seemed to be good at philosophy. (It helped that my first teachers were Bill Child, Ian Rumfitt, and Hanna Pickard – I can’t imagine a better introduction to philosophy.) So I concentrated on philosophy, and enjoyed every moment.
Still, it wasn’t clear to me then that I wanted to pursue a career in philosophy. After my undergraduate degree, I went to work in the Houses of Parliament for a Labour MP, which was great fun. I returned to Oxford to do my graduate work, then left again after my doctorate to work in the civil service. After a while I decided I wanted to come back to philosophy, and was lucky enough to get a job at the wonderful Birkbeck College in London. I often hear philosophers say that you should only do philosophy if you can’t imagine doing anything else. This tells you more about the imaginative capacities of philosophers than anything important. (They really can’t imagine doing anything else?) It’s a kind of self-congratulation which drives out from the discipline people who don’t see this as a vocation. And it ignores the way in which some of us find it difficult to imagine ourselves in a discipline which is so overwhelmingly white. I love my job very much, and feel very lucky to be able to spend so much of my time talking with smart, interesting people. But I don’t want to do this forever, and I hope I’ll get to do something else at some point.
3:AM: You’re interested in philosophy of mind and Kant. Can you sketch for us how Kant helps us understand how we come to get knowledge of the empirical world, one which we conceive of as existing unperceived?
AG: There’s a sense in which Kant is very uninterested in knowledge of the empirical world. The Cartesian sceptic only makes a brief appearance in the first Critique, in a small section called ‘The Refutation of Idealism’. There’s even a sense in which Kant is very uninterested in knowledge in the first Critique. His main interest is Erkenntnis – a German term which used to be translated as ‘knowledge’ but which is now usually translated as ‘cognition’. It’s not clear exactly what Erkenntnis is – some kind of object-directed thought, perhaps – but, at the least, we shouldn’t be too quick in identifying it with the kind of propositional knowledge which has been the focus of so much contemporary epistemology. (Karl Schafer, Eric Watkins and Marcus Willascheck, and my friend Andrew Stephenson and I have written on this.) It’s cognition which Kant finds puzzling in the first Critique – and, in particular, a certain kind of cognition which he takes himself to have been the first to identify: cognition of synthetic, a priori truths. Empirical cognition and empirical knowledge just don’t seem as puzzling to Kant, so they’re not the focus of his interest.
But this is not to say that Kant has nothing to say about our ability to think and know about the empirical world, and about the sense in which we can think of it as existing unperceived. On the face of it, it’s kind of odd that we can think of things in this way. ‘It’s still faintly surprising, this rigid fidelity of objects, sometimes resassuring, sometimes sinister’, as Ian McEwan puts it in Saturday. And it’s hard to see what would give us ground for thinking of the world as existing unperceived, particularly if our grounds for doing so are meant to come from experience. Kant seems to offer us an alternative which explains our capacity to think of things as existing unperceived in terms of our possession of certain a priori capacities. That’s a really interesting suggestion, which promises to make clear how we can think about objects existing unperceived without extracting the conception of an unperceived object from experience. It’s a claim which was influential in a certain part of the philosophy of mind. Gareth Evans, for instance, holds that our capacity to think of things as existing unperceived draws on a primitive theory of perception which is not itself derived from experience. That looks similar to the suggestion you find in Kant.
3:AM: Kant’s claim about the Transcendental deduction is that the categories must apply to experience, not that we must apply them. Can you sketch what this is about and what’s at stake in this? Why isn’t it enough to leave it at the more limited claim that we must apply them?
AG: The Transcendental Deduction of the Categories is at the heart of the first Critique. Philosophers like to compare it to a jungle which you have to hack your way across, or a desert which you have to cross without water. (This is the scholar, alone in the library, imagining herself as Indiana Jones.) Kant is aiming in this section to legitimate our use of a certain set of a priori concepts, the categories, a set which includes the concepts of and . One very natural way to think about the Deduction is as responding to a challenge raised by Hume. (Kant calls the Critique of Pure Reason the ‘elaboration of the Humean problem in its greatest possible amplification’.) On this way of reading the Deduction, the problem posed by the categories is that they are not given to us in our sensory apprehension of the world: there is just no such thing as an experience of causation, or an experience of substance. This raises a question of how it can ever be legitimate to apply the categories to the objects given to us through sensory experience. If we’re not presented with objects as instantiating the concepts of or , why think that we have grounds for applying those concepts?
Kant’s answer to this question turns on showing that the categories are necessary conditions on experience. But what is that supposed to mean? On one way of cashing this claim out, the categories are necessary conditions on experience because we have to apply the categories to the objects given to us in experience. That would be interesting, if it were true. But it doesn’t seem like it would justify our use of the categories. Because applying a concept is different from that concept being instantiated. And just because we have to apply the categories to the objects of experience, that doesn’t show that they are correctly applied. Application is distinct from instantiation and it seems to me that if we want the Deduction to justify our use of the categories, then it has to aim at the stronger claim and show that the categories are really instantiated. I worry that some readings of the Deduction don’t meet this constraint – that they don’t show anything more than that we must apply the categories. But you might respond to this worry by denying that the Deduction is really taking aim at Hume, or by holding that there’s no real difference between the necessary application of a concept and its instantiation. I don’t think those options are plausible, so I think that the distinction between us merely applying the categories and the categories having to apply is a useful one to wield in assessing reconstructions of the Deduction.
3:AM: Did Kant think we needed concepts to perceive? It seems strange to even think of him as some sort of naïve realist.
AG: It does, doesn’t it! And there’s a history to that strangeness. Naïve realism, as I understand it, is a claim about the phenomenal character of visual perceptions: it claims that visual perceptual consciousness involves primitive relations of apprehension which hold between perceivers and some aspects of their environment. We can trace naïve realist views back to the birth of analytic philosophy. G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell in Cambridge and John Cook Wilson and H.A. Prichard in Oxford reject the idealism of their predecessors in favour of some form of naïve realism about perceptual consciousness. It’s common for textbook nativity stories to present this revolution as the rejection of neo-Hegelian idealism. But for these philosophers it was primarily a rejection of Kantian idealism – and, in particular, a rejection of Kant’s views about the way in which the mind is active in perceptual consciousness. So from its beginnings, naïve realism was taken to be incompatible with Kant.
Why are they incompatible? Well, Kant seems to think that the understanding – that active, concept-using part of our mind – is involved in perceptual consciousness and one natural way to explain this involvement is by taking Kant to hold that perceptual consciousness constitutively depends on the concept-guided activity of the understanding. At least, that’s the dominant view. And if perceptual consciousness constitutively depends on the concept-guided activity of the understanding, you might think that it can’t be understood as involving primitive relations of sensory apprehension. That was the view of the early twentieth-century realists, and their response was to reject Kant.
But does Kant really hold that the understanding is involved in perceptual consciousness? That’s the traditional reading, I think, but non-conceptualist interpreters of Kant have challenged that view in recent years (Robert Hanna, Lucy Allais, Colin McLear, and others). And if you deny that Kant thought that perceptual consciousness constitutively depends on the understanding – if you think instead that Kant allowed that we could be perceptually presented with empirical particulars independent of the use of any concepts – then that looks to make possible a rapprochement between Kant and naïve realism. That’s one kind of motivation for some of these non-conceptualist interpreters since some of them use naïve realist type views to explicate Kant’s account of perception. The cost is that they sometimes end up denying that Kant allowed the understanding any role in perceptual consciousness at all.
My oxymoronically-titled paper ‘Naïve Realism in Kantian Phrase’ tries to find a middle ground here, by showing how one can think that visual perception involves primitive relations of apprehension, and nevertheless allow that the understanding is necessarily involved in perceptual consciousness. It’s an attempt to show how the insight motivating the early twentieth-century realists – that perception is a primitive form of sensory awareness, whose objects are mind-independent bits of our environment – can be combined with the Kantian recognition that the perceptual consciousness of rational beings is necessarily structured by our rational capacities. Very roughly, reconciliation is possible once we recognise that since modal dependence doesn’t suffice for constitutive dependence, the understanding can be necessarily involved in perceptual consciousness without being constitutive of perceptual consciousness. My naïve realist friends seem to think that this hitches a perfectly good account of perceptual consciousness to an unnecessary Kantian framework, whilst my Kantian friends think that it sullies the insights of Kant’s theories by tying them to a stupid theory of perception. I like to think it offers the best of both worlds, but it probably brings with it the worst of each as well.
3:AM: This is all linked to Phenomenal particularism. Can you sketch out the position and is it the default position of the naïve realist?
AG: The naïve realist says that visual consciousness involves primitive relations of apprehension. This is often glossed as the claim that visual consciousness involves empirical objects as constituents. The thought is that when you perceive an empirical object, you’re related to the object in such a way that the object is literally part of your perceptual consciousness. As I said, naïve realism is a part of early analytic views on the nature of perception. But it disappears from the debate in the middle part of the twentieth-century, arriving back in the latter part of the century through the work of John Campbell, Bill Brewer and, especially, M.G.F. Martin. In a recent paper, Neil Mehta objects to views on which particular external objects are sometimes part of the phenomenal character of perceptual experience. He calls this view phenomenal particularism. Naïve realists endorse this claim for a certain set of experiences – namely, visual perceptions (and perhaps perceptions in general). So naïve realism is one form that phenomenal particularism can take.
3:AM: Are you sympathetic to this position? Are you a defender of naïve realism?
AG: Certainly sympathetic. I’ve heard naïve realism and similar views described as a British disease and given my upbringing in Oxford and London, it’s probably unsurprising that I’m inclined towards the view.
My friend Craig French and I have tried to defend naïve realism against the objections that Mehta raises to phenomenal particularism. One of the things we try to do there is show just how many resources the naïve realist has for responding to various objections. One common kind of objection to naïve realism turns on the fact that there are experiences which seem to involve the same particulars, but which differ in phenomenal character. Mehta gives as an example the taste of wine versus the visual perception of wine. If you thought that perceptual consciousness was just a relation to an object, then it looks like you would have to say that both experiences involve the same phenomenal character (or, at least, some common phenomenal character). But although I glossed naïve realism above as the claim that perception involves relations of apprehension which hold between perceiver and object, in fact many naïve realists take perceptual consciousness to be a three-place relation which links perceivers, objects, and the point of view from which that object is perceived. This is a part of the early twentieth century views as well, and Craig and I try to show how naïve realists can appeal to differences in the point of view in order to explain certain differences in phenomenal character.
A related objection concerns what the naïve realist should say about the phenomenal character of non-perceptual experiences – say, hallucinations or imaginative experiences, the latter of which features in Mehta’s paper. Again, Craig and I are concerned to show the ways in which you can think of there being commonalities between hallucination and perception, or imagination and perception, which don’t turn on the experiences possessing a shared phenomenal character. In the case of imaginative experiences, for instance, we might think of them as representations of the phenomenal relations that one stands in when one is perceiving a certain scene. This can secure a kind of commonality which doesn’t challenge the naïve realist insight about the genuinely perceptual case.
Neil Mehta and Todd Ganson have a really nice response to our paper, which helps clarify what is at stake in the dispute, and we have a further reply. So there are still challenges for naïve realism to overcome. But I do think that there is an insight in naïve realism which makes it worth exploring seriously.
3:AM: You’ve also investigated the problem of other minds. Could you first lay out the issues that need to be confronted?
AG: There are a number of issues which get raised under the heading of ‘The Problem of Other Minds’. One way in which the problem is sometimes raised is by appeal to cases of pretence or deception: isn’t it possible that, for all you know, Sadiq is pretending to be in pain? That’s a very natural thought, one that you find in The Truman Show for instance. But if you can’t rule out the possibility of pretence, how can you know that Sadiq is in pain? That’s one way to raise a sceptical problem about others’ minds, and there’s certainly some problem about our knowledge of others’ minds here. But this problem doesn’t seem to turn on anything particularly distinctive about our relationship to others’ minds. Similar problems arise for our perceptual knowledge – isn’t it a possibility that you’re hallucinating right now? – and our knowledge gained through memory – isn’t it a possibility that the world was fully formed only 5 minutes ago, with all your apparent memories included? Sceptical scenarios pose a threat to knowledge, but there’s nothing distinctive about their application to the case of our knowledge of others’ minds.
And when we look at the history of the problem of other minds, it doesn’t seem like a concern with pretence or deception is really motivating the discussions. Rather, the problem is one about identifying the source of our knowledge of others’ minds. We take ourselves to know lots about one another’s mental lives, and when we know about something, there is usually a means by which we know about it. But how do we know about other people’s thoughts and feelings? The answer’s not obvious, and that’s usually the starting point for philosophical puzzlement about our knowledge of others’ minds.
3:AM: Is the main problem one about the source of knowledge about other minds or is it a conceptual problem – or are both equally problematic?
AG: Right. I focused above on the problem raised in accounting for our knowledge of others’ minds. But in the middle of the twentieth-century, prompted in part by some considerations raised by Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations and elsewhere, commentators began to distinguish between the epistemological problem of other minds and the conceptual problem of other minds. Whereas the epistemological problem of other minds asks how it is possible for us to have knowledge of others’ minds, given some potential obstacle to that knowledge, the conceptual problem asks how it is possible for us to think about others’ minds, given some potential obstacle to our possessing concepts which would enable us to do so. When I first started writing on this, the conceptual problem seemed to me to be the most pressing – partly because I was interested in Kantian questions about how we come to think of empirical objects as existing unperceived, and it seemed to me that there was a structural analogy with questions about how we come to think about pains as existing unperceived by me – which is what you might think is required if we’re to think of other people as being in pain when we ourselves are not. But I was never convinced by the line of thought, put forward by some writing on this problem, that once you solved the conceptual problem, there is no epistemological problem left to answer. Both seem interesting, in different ways, and my recent work has focused more on the epistemological problem.
3:AM: What role has testimony got in solving some of the problems about other minds?
AG: I said above that the problem of other minds has historically been one of finding a source for our knowledge of others’ minds. And in both the historical and contemporary debates, the main options in responding to this question have been perception and inference. Either our knowledge of others’ minds is a kind of inferential knowledge, like the knowledge we have when we construct a theory about what is going on behind a closed door based on the sounds that we hear emanating from the room. Or it is a kind of perceptual knowledge, like the knowledge we have when we open the door and see what’s behind it. There are a number of problems with framing the options available in this way. First, it’s unclear how to distinguish perception and inference: perhaps perceptual knowledge is just a form of inferential knowledge. Second, it’s not clear why we should think the division is exclusive: perhaps some of our knowledge of others’ minds is perceptual and some is inferential. And finally, it’s not clear why we should think that the division is exhaustive: perhaps some of our knowledge is neither perceptual nor inferential.
My paper on testimony and knowledge of others’ minds was an attempt to start thinking about the options for pursuing that last response: for holding that there is some knowledge of others’ minds which is neither perceptual nor inferential. And given that the most basic way in which we come to know about others’ minds is through testimony – you tell me things, I tell you things – that seemed like a good starting point for pursuing the strategy. Part of what I wanted to do was to show that some common reasons for ignoring testimony as a non-perceptual and non-inferential source of knowledge of others’ minds weren’t very good.
But as I’ve been working on this, I’m coming round to the idea that the testimonial knowledge we have of others’ minds is just an instance of a more general distinctive way of knowing about others’ minds. The standard framework starts by assimilating our knowledge of others’ minds to our knowledge of the material world. But this seems to mischaracterise our relation to others in various ways. My friend Nick Jones once called this postulation of a sui generis mode of knowledge a kind of cheating and I worry that he’s right. So I suppose what I’m trying to figure out at the moment is whether I can get away with cheating here.
3:AM: You’ve looked at a particularly odd looking real life case about other minds where an experiment purportedly showed people thinking that people in persistent vegetative states had less mentality than dead people. You disagree that this is what the experiment showed didn’t you: so first can you say what the paper was claiming and why?
AG: The starting point is this interesting study that Kurt Gray, Anne Knickman and Daniel Wegner undertook concerning the kinds of mental states we ascribe to people in a persistent vegetative state. Their striking conclusion is, as they put it, that people perceive patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) as having less mental capacity than the dead, that we think of them as ‘more dead than dead’. That’s surprising, to say the least. Don’t we ordinarily think of death as bringing to an end a subject’s mental capacities? In which case, how can there be people who have less mental capacity than the dead? For Gray et al., the answer is that we don’t really think about the dead as having no mental capacity: these judgements about PVS patients show that we’re really implicit dualists. One way to react to this study is to go: wow, that’s really cool and interesting. Another is to go: huh, something must have gone wrong somewhere. And that was my initial reaction. So my friend Matt Parrott and I started to think about what had gone wrong.
3:AM: And why do you think they draw the wrong conclusion?
AG: Here’s how the study worked: participants were presented with a short vignette about a fictional character named David who has been in a car accident. One group has a story in which he lives, one has a story in which he dies, and one has a story in which he enters a persistent vegetative state. They’re then asked to rate David’s mental capacity by indicating on scale running from “-3, Strongly Disagree” to “0, Neither Agree nor Disagree”, to “3, Strongly Agree” whether David has various mental capacities. Those who got the PVS vignette gave the lowest rating of mental capacity to David.
In our first paper on this study, Matt and I provided an alternative explanation of the data which we think is much neater, and doesn’t involve ascribing to people implicit dualist beliefs. We start with the famous fragment from Epicurus where he says that ‘when death comes, then we do not exist’. An Epicurean is someone who thinks that when people are dead, they no longer exist. Our suggestion is that people are implicit Epicureans. How should an implicit Epicurean answer the questions in the study? Consider first the vignette in which David is dead. You’re asked whether you agree or disagree with statements such as ‘David has emotions and feelings’. This statement presupposes that David exists. And it’s very natural to think that when a statement has a presupposition that you take to be false, neither agreement or disagreement seems appropriate. (Compare being asked whether you agree or disagree with the statement ‘I’ve stopped cheating on my partner’.) If you don’t want to agree with the statement, nor want to disagree with the statement, then the only option is to rate ‘0, Neither Agree nor Disagree’ – and what’s driving the rating here is the implicit judgement that David no longer exist.
Compare the case where David is in PVS. Here, David still exists. So if you’re an implicit Epicurean, and you’re asked to rate the statement ‘David has emotions and feelings’, there’s no obstacle to your answering ‘-3, Strongly Disagree’. And now we’ll get a situation where the case where David is dead receives a higher rating (0) than the case where David is in PVS (-3). But that’s not because people implicitly think the dead to have mental capacities which persist after death – it’s that people implicitly think that the dead no longer exist, and so neither agree nor disagree with statements which presuppose their existence.
A second paper which Matt and I wrote with our friend Josh Shepherd considered the method of using fictional texts to elicit judgements which are supposed to tell us about people’s implicit beliefs. I think this is a fascinating area: lots of experimental philosophy and social psychology use people’s responses to fictional texts as a way to get at their ordinary beliefs. Indeed, that’s a mainstay of the philosophical use of thought-experiments. But there are all kinds of differences between the way in which we respond to fictions and the way in which we respond to non-fictions, and our worry was that some of those differences might affect people’s responses. The issue we were concerned with was fictional timelines. Fictional stories often represent an extended period of time and over this period of time, the attributes of characters change. Some questions about a character will specify which moment in the fictional timeline you’re being asked about and some questions won’t. And when you ask a question which doesn’t specify which moment of the fictional timeline you’re asking about, it’s open for respondents to understand the question in different ways.
Here’s an example: Imagine finishing Anna Karenina and being asked: does Anna really care for her son? In answering that question, we think back to the characterisation of Anna’s relationship with her son; we think of the things she does and whether they can be explained as resulting from her love for him. We can disagree about the answer. But it would be odd to answer ‘No’ to the question on the basis that Anna dies at the end of the novel, so is therefore incapable of loving anyone. (Does that need a spoiler alert?) The question doesn’t specify that we should assess whether Anna loves her son at the end of the fictional timeline – and, in some ways, it would be an odd person who understood it in that way.
This is relevant for the study in Gray et al., because they wanted to elicit people’s judgements about David’s mental capacities at a particular point of the fictional timeline –namely, after his accident. But the questions didn’t make that clear. So we ran some studies which added a focusing clause to the questions, making explicit the point in the fictional timeline which they concerned. So instead of just asking whether you agree or disagree with the statement ‘David has emotions and feelings’, we asked whether you agreed or disagreed with the statement ‘After his accident/ death David has emotions and feelings’. And our results seem to show that the effect disappeared once the questions were clarified in this way. I think there’s probably still more to do on this, but these two papers indicate some of our concerns.
3:AM: Cognitive scientists are working to understand many of issues raised by Kant – do you think the scientists are going to get conclusive answers to the question about consciousness and the mind – and other minds – and if they are, doesn’t that make the Kantian project and the philosophers working in that tradition of just historical interest? I guess the question is whether you think philosophy should be heeded in the contemporary setting anymore?
AG: That’s a great (and deep and difficult) question. At its most general, it’s a question about whether philosophy has any role to play in the study of the mind. Of course, even if cognitive science gave us conclusive answers about the mind, that alone wouldn’t show that the philosophy of mind couldn’t make a contribution to the study of the mind, since there’s a long and distinguished conception of philosophy serving as under-labourer to science, to use Locke’s famous image. So there’s a role for philosophy in clarifying the concepts that scientists use, in criticising the way in which they take certain evidence to support a view, in offering alternative hypotheses which science can go away and investigate. I think of our papers on the PVS studies as being along these lines. None of these tasks is easy, and to see philosophy as playing this role is not to detract in any way from the importance of philosophical input, nor to diminish the distinctive contribution that can be made by philosophical reflection. But there’s a sense in which this construal of the relation between the philosophy and science of the mind has the former as parasitic on the latter.
But I think I’d be wary of the assumption that if philosophy can’t contribute towards the study of the mind in that way, then it has no contribution to make and is just of historical interest. Some of the questions which we’re concerned with in the philosophy of mind are questions which arise from our ordinary conception of the mind. One question about those ordinary aspects is how they fit with the scientific description of the mind – this is the project Wilfrid Sellars described of reconciling our scientific and manifest images. But to reduce the philosophy of mind to this question is to ignore the questions we might ask about those ordinary aspects in their own right, questions such as those about the character of perceptual consciousness and its role in explaining our knowledge and thought of a mind-independent world, or those about the kind of relation we stand in to others’ minds. These ordinary aspects of the mind can be the objects of philosophical puzzlement and the starting point for philosophical investigation – and whilst I think that anything we say about these topics shouldn’t be in conflict with what we know about the mind from the sciences, I don’t take it that our pursuing those questions is legitimate only to the extent that they can be eventually substituted for questions tractable in scientific terms. The questions about the mind which are pursued in the sciences are not the only questions about the mind we might want ask.
You also asked about the Kantian project and its role in all of this. Again, I don’t think it would be bad if the Kantian project were just of historical interest, since to be of historical interest is presumably one way of being of interest, and the value in studying Kant’s philosophy is not dependent on it being able to contribute to a future cognitive science. Still, there’s no doubt that Kant’s views have been influential in the philosophy of mind and, at least from my point of view, exposure to Kant’s genius can be a source of insight about the nature of the mind. But Kant’s views on the mind can also seem alien to us in all kinds of ways, and that’s also interesting since it makes prominent some of the background assumptions in our contemporary thinking about the mind which are otherwise too prevalent to command attention.
3:AM: And finally for the readers here at 3;AM, are there five books you could recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?
AG: My book choices would be easily predictable, so can I do something else? A few years ago I ran a neglected papers seminar in Oxford, where each session a member of the Faculty drew attention to some interesting philosophy paper which they thought should be better known. It was prompted, in part, by the way my friends back home approach music: no-one there is surprised if you like the first three A Tribe Called Quest albums, or the Kano Fire in the Booth freestyle – that’s like trying to impress someone by telling them about this little jazz album you just bought called Kind of Blue. But turn up with a Kamaal the Abstract remix or a Novelist bootleg – well, then you’re talking. So this is five B-sides and rarities which people might not have heard of, from the genre I know best, twentieth-century Oxford philosophy.
John Cook Wilson, Statement and Inference : Cook Wilson is the leading figure in the early twentieth-century Oxford Realist movement, a group of thinkers who undertook a rejection of idealism contemporaneous with the more famous revolution featuring Moore and Russell in Cambridge. These two posthumously published volumes collect together his writings, and although they aren’t particularly easy or enjoyable reading, they’re interesting for defending and developing claims which are now returning to philosophical discussion, for example that knowledge is a primitive state not to be explained in terms of belief, and that perception involves primitive relations of sensory apprehension. And his focus on the importance of attending to ordinary language helps bring J.L. Austin’s work into focus.
Nathalie Duddington, ‘Our Knowledge of Other Minds’ : Duddington was a student of Dawes Hicks at UCL. She’s remembered now, if at all, for her translations of Russian literature but her two essays on our knowledge of others’ minds are great fun, in both style and substance. They bear the imprint of the Oxford Realist conception of knowledge and give expression to one powerful source behind the claim that our knowledge of others’ minds is perceptual.
G.A. Paul, ‘Lenin’s Theory of Perception’ : I like this mostly for the incongruous connection between Oxford philosophy and revolutionary Russia. Paul’s main concern is to deny that Lenin’s account of perception is, as Lenin claims, part of our ordinary thinking about perception. I’m not sure that Paul’s interpretation of Lenin is correct, but Lenin’s polemic contains my all-time favourite objection to phenomenalism: that belief in it delays the worker’s revolution. Amen to that.
Iris Murdoch, ‘Thinking and Language’ : I don’t think Iris Murdoch counts as neglected any more, but philosophical attention has tended to focus on the genius of The Sovereignty of Good, or occasionally on the prog-rock stylings of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. Yet her early papers on behaviourism are of interest in their own right. This suggestive paper is from a Joint Session symposium with Gilbert Ryle where Murdoch offers us a range of phenomenological reflections in an attempt to safeguard inner experience without denying the motivations for the behaviourist critique.
Ross Harrison, On What There Must Be : P.F. Strawson’s wonderful books Individuals and The Bounds of Sense seemed to showcase a return to metaphysical theorising by Oxford philosophers, albeit a ‘descriptive metaphysics’ which aimed to capture the character of our own conceptual scheme. Harrison’s book – which I think was his doctoral thesis, supervised by Strawson – is the most unadulterated instance of the Strawsonian programme that I know, and for those of us who are interested in Strawson’s work, it’s valuable for seeing what can be done within that framework.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, January 7th, 2017.