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Keeping Sartre, and other passions

3:AM: You link the idea of non-observational knowledge with Anscombe’s account of practical knowledge. You again invoke the idea of the privileging of authority over our own actions without saying that this means we are infallible about intentions. It’s just that ‘if the agent doesn’t know what he’s doing, no one else can know.’ This is because it is only through the agent’s description of what she’s doing that we can understand the action, and the agent knows without observation. Is this right? Can you say more about this argument, and how your ideas connect with Anscombe here.

RM: Anscombe’s book on Intention made a big impression on me when I read it as an undergraduate, though I couldn’t understand most of what was going on. But the idea of ‘agent’s knowledge’ stuck with me. When I began to work on self-knowledge in graduate school with Sydney Shoemaker, I had Anscombe’s discussion in the back of my mind, particularly the idea that an agent can typically say what she is doing, and what she will do, in a way that does not depend on observation of herself. (David Velleman’s paper Practical Reflection came out in the Philosophical Review around the same time.) The account I developed tries to show deep relations between knowledge of actions and knowledge of minds, in the end seeing these as part of one topic because it is agents who have mental lives. And agents bear a special relation to their own actions and their own attitudes, different from any observer, in that it is to the agent that we direct the question “What are you doing?” and “Why are you doing it?”

These questions have to be answered together. Given Anscombe’s thought that an action only counts as intentional when describe certain ways and not others (“under a description”), the very reality of it as an intentional action depends on the agent’s understanding of what she is doing and why. Naturally it is possible for us to be confused about what we are doing or about our own genuine attitudes about something, but I believe that without the framework just described we have left the topic of intentional action or intentional (in the sense of ‘directed’) states of mind. Not everything one does (like blinking or knocking something over) is an intentional action, and not everything going through one’s mind counts as an attitude about something in the world.

The sense of saying ‘if the agent doesn’t know, no one else can know’ is to capture the limited but crucial sense of privilege here, which once again grounds things in asymmetries between self and other, or agent and observer. When the agent has no idea what she is doing, or refuses the application of Anscombe’s question “why?” altogether, then the thought is we don’t have an intentional action in view, to be known by either the agent herself or some outside observer. Of course, in this whole approach I am insisting on the perspective of the person as a whole, and denying that either actions or attitudes apply to parts of a person. This is a matter of deep division in contemporary philosophy. I think the perspective of the person as a whole is fundamental to understanding either action or mental life. The idea of practical knowledge has many dimensions, not only in Anscombe and related thinkers. I think there is a lot more to say about practical knowledge as a form of self-knowledge, and self-knowledge as itself a form of practical knowledge. The discussion is evolving in very interesting ways right now, on the part of several different philosophers.

3:AM: You are interested in speech and testimony. Can you say something here about where this interest came from and why you find it significant?

RM: Oddly enough (or repetitively enough), my interest in speech and testimony originally came out of that same interest of mine in the idea of self-other asymmetries, or the idea of systematic, inescapable differences in how I can relate to some aspect of myself and how I can relate to others. It was in graduate school, when I was starting to work on self-knowledge that I read a paper by Angus Ross called ‘Why do we believe what we are told?’. In that paper he argues that the speaker’s own stance toward what she says must be something different from the presentation of something as evidence for the truth of what she says, in part because when something like a photograph is evidence for something, it is so for reasons quite independent of the beliefs or intentions of the person who either takes the photograph or shows it to someone else. A speaker’s relation to her own words, when she tells someone something, can’t be like that. In the context of her telling someone the house is on fire, for example, her utterance is only a reason to believe something on the assumption that she, as speaker, bears a certain relation to her utterance. She must, for instance, be awake and aware of what she is saying, otherwise she’s just talking in her sleep and not asserting or warning at all. The speaker must mean these words she says as an assertion that the house is on fire, rather than as a linguistic example as I just did, or as a translation exercise; the speaker must understand the language she is speaking, and that her act of speaking is supposed to count for her audience as a reason to believe that the house is on fire. All this and more must be part of her agent’s relation to what she is doing, to her speech-act, if it is to function as an ordinary piece of testimony.

Anyway, Ross develops this thought in the context of a contrast between the speaker’s relation to her act and her relation to a piece of evidence she encounters, examines, and perhaps shows to someone else. So I was immediately struck by the connections with a similar argument I was in the process of formulating with respect to self-knowledge and self-other differences. In both there is the challenge to make sense of a certain connection between agency and knowledge (where in testimony this means informing another person of something; hence the relation to knowledge); in both there is a central place for a contrast between a stance of observation and evidence and a stance of agency and commitment; and in both this contrast is expressed in asymmetries between the first- and third-person positions. Just as the fact that first-person authority (and what is sometimes described as ‘privilege’) is at the same time internally related to restrictions on the first-person point of view, limitations on how a person can coherently relate to his own mental life; in a related way the speaker’s authority to, among other things, constitute her utterance as an assertion, or a question, or other illocution is internally related to the fact that she can’t assume the same relation to her utterance that she is enjoining her audience to take. She can’t believe herself anymore than she can accept her own word on something. It takes two, two people in a certain relation. And this again is part of the contrast with ordinary evidence, like the photograph or a found object. There the person with the evidence and the person she shows it to will only accidentally be in different epistemic positions with respect to what it shows, what it means, whether it is to be trusted. It’s a phenomenon in the world like any other to which even the producer of the object (like the photographer) stands in an observer’s relation. Speaking, on the other hand, must be understood as an act. For any act there will be a contrast between the agent’s perspective and a perspective on his act “from the outside”. And in the case of speech-acts like asserting and telling, there is the additional fact that the act in question does not just admit of another perspective (an “outside perspective), but the speech-act of telling presents itself to another perspective, that of its audience, and hence understands itself “from the inside” as already containing this other perspective, that of the interlocutor it hopes to inform and communicate with.

I got very interested in these connections between the two sets of issues. In both the questions around self-knowledge and the questions around speech, testimony, and intersubjectivity, there is systematic difference of perspective that defines the subject matter itself, along with the philosophical and practical task of coordinating these two perspectives. The first-person perspective cannot be understood apart from the third-person perspective, and reciprocally. One of Wittgenstein’s main points in the ‘private language argument’ is that it is an illusion (and a very natural one) to think that the first-person use of psychological concepts could be a “stand alone” use, could remain meaningful when divorced from its third-person uses. Rather, he maintains, in the case of ‘pain’ or the psychological verbs these different perspectives are integrated parts of a systematic whole, forming a single concept. The fact of this systematicity means that the differences between the two perspectives and their contrasting demands must be understood in terms of each other, and not in isolation from each other. They are what they are only in with respect to each other. Hence while stressing the asymmetries, there is equal and reciprocal stress on these differences as forming the grammar of one concept, and hence seeing these contrasting perspectives as actually forming a systematic whole. And in the case of speaking, there is the fact of the asymmetries between the speaker’s perspective and the audience’s perspective, and the practical and philosophical task of coordinating these two perspectives, since neither could exist without the other, and indeed each has to be understood in terms of the other.

So the topic of relations to oneself and relations to others became entwined in my first thinking about self-knowledge and I wanted to integrate these two projects. I was reading Being and Nothingness at the time, and here I seemed to find someone else who was trying to work out something about the connections between subjectivity, the limitations of self-relations (e.g., the theme of ‘bad faith’), and the clash of perspectives in relations to others (a clash that at the same time involves incorporating the perspective of the other). This all seems like one topic to me, and in fact I originally had planned to combine in one book the account of self-knowledge, and the account of “essentially other-related” acts and attitudes. I soon enough realised that if I really tried to do that my book would never see the light of day. So I cut that other part loose, and I’m only now trying to put them back together again. I’ve been continuing to work on speech and intersubjectivity since my first paper on testimony, and in the completed story I hope to make clear its relation to the topics Authority and Estrangement.

3:AM: So is your approach linked with Grice’s non-natural meaning cast in an epistemological light, whereby the speaker assumes responsibility for whatever she says and this constitutes her utterance as a reason to believe?

RM: Indeed, Grice’s 1957 paper ‘Meaning’ is a central part of the story I tell in that paper, even though it’s not really a Gricean account that I’m defending. I’d been fascinated by that paper since college, but Ross also brings it up in his original paper. One fascinating thing about that paper is the question of what the notion at the centre really is, and why it seems to be one we have a kind of pre-philosophical affinity with. Grice simply introduces this idea of something he calls ‘non-natural meaning’ as a philosophical term of art. He says it’s not the same as ‘conventional meaning’, which at least has its non-philosophical uses, and it’s not the same as linguistic meaning, since of course it is supposed to contribute to an account of that notion and hence can’t be presupposed. So in that sense, as a term it is a complete philosophical artifact.

And yet in the paper he just launches into a discussion of contrasting cases, progressively refining the notion, as we consult our intuitions about such things as the donning of a tailcoat, the handkerchief left at the scene, the compromising photograph, or throwing a five-pound note out the window in the presence of an avaricious man. And at each stage Grice expects us to have (and we do!) pretty firm intuitions about whether the case in question should count as a case of “non-natural meaning” or not. But the odd thing is: what could possibly be guiding these intuitions? What pre-philosophical understanding of some concept could we take ourselves to be tracking in this progressive refinement of the definition? It certainly seems like something real, but Grice does not really tell us what it is. And when I read the paper more carefully, I noticed that at one crucial moment in it he does say that he is here trying to capture the difference between “telling” someone that P, and merely “deliberately and openly letting them know”. So the notion of “telling” makes an appearance. And here I felt we were fixing on a difference that was driving much of the argument. It was this difference that was being tracked in the progress of the different cases. And that difference does seem to matter, in a variety of interesting ways. It’s not a hard and fast distinction, and part of the interest in Grice’s paper is in seeing how we move along a spectrum of cases here, with a range of different implications for the normative relation between the two people in the encounter. It’s connected with my interest in metaphor and the like, since there in a different register much hangs on the difference between saying something outright and suggesting, insinuating, or “intimating” it (as Davidson suggests we put it).

The discussion of pictures and praeteritio in the first metaphor paper is part of that interest, as well as the interest in the Aristotle paper on the rhetoric of metaphor. There are important differences in the modes of encounter between the more explicit and the less explicit, and as I see it the topic of testimony and telling people things is in part about understanding the nature and importance of the difference made by explicitly telling someone something. Grice’s paper is in part an exploration of that, and he says that it has to do with a certain form of self-presentation (although he doesn’t put it that way). To engage in non-natural meaning, to tell someone something, is to present my act to them so that they will recognise my intention, and the recognition of this intention will play some role in actually bringing the other person to believe. The unanswered question there is how such recognition is supposed to do that. Grice speaks of a ‘motive’ for belief, but that doesn’t really help. And further problems flow from this, such as the distorting effect of the picture of doing something so as to ‘act on the beliefs’ of the other person.

3:AM: When discussing Jonathan Lear’s Tanner Lectures on Freud a key issue is Freud’s relationship with natural science. It seems as if Freud at first wanted to disavow physiology and the natural sciences and approach psychoanalysis as pure philosophy. This invites speculation about the relationship between philosophy and psychoanalysis and of course, your own work has been very much focused on how we should understand minds and selves. So as a philosopher, are you disavowing physiological evidence about the mind – and so rejecting perhaps the naturalist turn in morality with parade cases the work of Pat Churchland or Brian Leiter’s naturalist Nietzsche or Josh Knobe and the x-phi crew – or is your philosophical project in some ways orthogonal to these – and Freud’s – concerns?

RM: I don’t think it’s right to say that Freud ever wanted to disavow physiology and the natural sciences, or that he saw psychoanalysis as pure philosophy. Freud had a deep and deeply ambivalent relation to philosophy his whole life long. His project is philosophical in that it means to be a general account of the human condition, and it is also a deeply metaphysical theory in that he took himself to be offering an account of how an organism comes to acquire the idea of the external world in the first place, and how this acquisition is precarious for creatures like us. We fall back into the dream world every night, we never leave behind our infantile, solipsistic selves, and the primary process thinking that characterizes dreams is a constant part of our waking lives as well.

Freud also offers an account of the origin of morality, and of reason itself. In all this he sees himself as undertaking a classically philosophical enterprise. But there are at least three other aspects of the Freudian enterprise that are equally important in this regard. One, from the very beginning he saw his project as continuous with natural science. And not just natural science in the sense of biology or neurology, important as they were to Freud. No, the connection with natural science he wanted went as deep as thermodynamics itself. Early in his career (the ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology‘) and late (‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle‘) he saw the very notions of drive, inner and outer, need and action, as stemming from the basic facts of energy retention, tension, and discharge. This basic framework was never abandoned.

Second, psychoanalysis was never just a descriptive theory. From the beginning it was a therapeutic practice, and as such it was an engagement with the empirical on a day to day basis, and not simply an matter of abstract theorizing. One may certainly raise questions about Freud’s assurances about his “clinical results”, but in his own mind the evolving psychoanalytic theory was nothing without them. So in this way psychoanalysis departs from “pure philosophy”. In another way, of course, we may think that a practice-oriented therapeutic perspective doesn’t necessarily take us away from philosophy. Both the Socratic and the Nietzschean, and the Wittgensteinian visions of philosophy take themselves to be primarily forms of practice, rather than theory construction.

Thirdly, Freudian psychoanalysis was from the beginning a form of cultural critique, which distinguishes it from some forms of “pure philosophy” but obviously not from all philosophy. By cultural critique I mean that Freud saw as central and not peripheral to what psychoanalysis was that it had a deeply critical story to tell about civilization and its relation to pleasure, sexuality and aggression, about the origins of religion and morality, about the family and other forms of authority. It may seem a long way from thermodynamics, to the theory of dreams and the unconscious, to the critique of morality and the family, but that’s the shape of the theory. I don’t think it’s possible or profitable to distinguish the properly philosophical part of it from the rest.

As to ‘experimental philosophy, I can’t claim to be very well versed in it, but it seems to be a research program in its early days. I think that by now, even its practitioners are beginning to realise that simply asking people, outside of any particular context, about their “intuitions” about some concept of philosophical interest is not really going to be informative since without any philosophical background to the question, the respondents themselves can’t really know just what question they are being asked to answer, what their responses are responses to. There are just too many different things that can be meant by a question like, “‘Was such-and-such an action intentional or not?”, for example. And without further discussion or further analysis, the experimenters themselves can’t know what answers they are being given by the respondents. It’s not good data. So I can imagine experimental philosophy evolving in a way to account for this, and starting to include some philosophical background to the investigation, perhaps even some philosophical history, to provide the needed context to the particular intuitions that they are trying to expose and test for. At that point, the experimental situation might also become less one-sided, with a researcher examining a respondent, and could allow for the experimental subjects themselves to ask questions of the experimenters, including questions of clarification and disambiguation, and perhaps even challenges to the way the experimenter has framed the questions.

Later it might be found useful to conduct such experiments in small groups rather than individually, with one experimenter and one subject, and instead the respondents could be encouraged to discuss the questions among themselves as well as with the experimenter. People could meet in these groups two or three times a week and perhaps some relevant reading could be assigned, to clarify and expand upon the question, and the respondents would be given time to do the reading, and asked to write something later on about the question in connection with the reading and the discussions they have had. Then the experimenter could provide “comments” on this writing for the experimental subjects themselves. I think grading the results would be optional on such an arrangement, and probably of no experimental interest, but other than that I think something like this could be the future of experimental philosophy. It’s worth trying anyway.

3:AM: So perhaps now we can ask about your relationship with existentialism. We briefly mentioned Sartre earlier, but you note elsewhere that as a movement at the moment it has no friends, and is perhaps more dead on the continent than it ever was in the Anglo-Saxon context. Even interest in Heidegger and Nietzsche is now divorced from existentialism. Yet you find things of value in i,t don’t you? You’ve written about Iris Murdoch’s engagement with Sartrean existentialsm and find her compelling in many ways. Is it again linked to your idea that they offer a compelling notion of the self that doesn’t fall foul of the kind of errors that you have sketched out earlier? What’s the appeal for you, and what is important that we’re missing if we dismiss her, and Sartre and existentialism as a whole? Is it time we revisited it seriously?

RM: Like many people, my early encounters with philosophy included reading writers like Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and other writers who get associated with existentialism. I read Heidegger early on, but it was only after college that I read Kierkegaard and Sartre. The attraction for these writers is easy enough to understand. In the case of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, these are simply some of the most brilliant writers philosophy has produced. And they take seriously the idea of addressing questions that are everyone’s concerns, and not just part of a scholarly debate. Not to disparage philosophical writing that is ensconced within a scholarly debate, of course, but it shouldn’t be the only kind of philosophical writing there is. And the non-scholarly sort is of course much easier for a young person to connect with since it doesn’t presuppose a particular training. I’ve retained an interest in all these figures.

As an undergraduate, and later in graduate school, I was always involved in “continental” thinkers of one sort or another because I was always interested in literary studies, and literary theory at the time was only drawing on philosophy from the broadly continental tradition. (Or so it seemed at the time. Even that was something of an illusion.) However, it wasn’t until after college that I read Heidegger seriously, and it wasn’t until years after that, mid-way in graduate school, that I read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness for the first time. So I came to him a bit late. I’m not sure exactly what led me to it at that time. It might have been something in Frederick Olafson’s book Principles and Persons. I found it very exciting, in particular because Sartre, especially in his account of bad faith but not only there, seemed consumed by the ‘practical’ dimension of the self-other asymmetries that were so fundamental to Wittgenstein. The inescapability of an irreducibly agential perspective coupled with the difficulties in incorporating that in an objective picture of the world (including the world of other people). So I came to value him as a philosopher, and wondered why he wasn’t taken more seriously. For all his fame, Sartre came to seem to me to be a neglected philosopher. And here’s the thing, by this time (the 1980s) Sartre was a shunned and despised figure on both sides of the Atlantic. In the world of Foucault, Derrida, Althusser, etc. there was no figure more discredited than Sartre, who represented everything that was outmoded in the dreaded “philosophy of the subject”. And in the analytic departments of philosophy Sartre was treated as a joke. There is plenty to complain about or disagree with in Sartre, as with most philosophers, but this universal contempt seemed to me to have other sources, and was based for the most part on a self-satisfied ignorance of his actual writing. Unfortunately, in the English-speaking world, I think Iris Murdoch contributed to the dismissal of Sartre, despite how much her early work is indebted to him and other existentialists. Many people stlll get their first impression from the caricature in Murdoch’s Sovereignty of Good, which is a seriously distorted account (as I argue in the paper you alluded to).

One source of this general dismissal was simply his fame, the fact that he became such a media figure in the first great age of electronic media, and many philosophers find that hard to forgive. He fully paid the price of his media presence. In his uses of his celebrity he was like John Lennon in a way. Someone eager for fame, who then actually became famous in a way that was beyond what he could have imagined. And in both cases they thought they could use their position as celebrities, as media figures, to inject themselves into political contexts of one sort or another. In both cases, I think, the idea was that all this celebrity should be good for something, should be something one can put to use, spend like money or political capital. You can get crowds of people together, you can denounce some political crime, you can get an audience with Castro, and count on the media to cover that. That’s something. And of course both good and embarrassing things can come of such a tactic. Sartre was brash and bratty, and prone to drastic changes of position, and denunciation of his opponents, both political and philosophical. All that is part of ordinary philosophical-literary-political life, especially in a hothouse atmosphere like the Parisian scene in the sixties. There was much good work, and there were many excessive, reckless gestures. Sartre is typically thought of as someone with a great deal of ‘baggage’, much to answer for, whereas somehow Heidegger’s Nazism, for instance, can be overlooked or put aside, and he is by now a perfectly respectable citizen of the philosophical world. (And he certainly belongs in the philosophical world, don’t get me wrong, but his political history is hardly irrelevant). By contrast, Sartre’s early support for the Cuban revolution, for Algerian independence, his alliance with Simone de Beauvoir, and his involvement in the post-colonial world generally is still unforgiveable, so he can’t be taken seriously. As a graduate student I also felt that it was just the fact itself that Sartre, despite how we are all encouraged to condescend to him, still had an audience among young people around the world that made him philosophically unrespectable. What can all these kids know about real philosophy? So it was this situation as much as anything else that in me gave rise to the perverse desire to keep his presence alive in philosophy, keeping him as part of my regular teaching for many years, despite my ambivalence about him in many ways. I say all this even though I myself have never read most of his work, I think more than half of Being and Nothingness could have been removed by a good copy-editor, and I know I would never live long enough to make even a first assault on, e.g., the Critique of Dialectical Reason. It’s just the good stuff that matters.

3:AM: And finally, for the existentialists here at 3:AM, are there five books (other than your own which we’ll be dashing away to read as soon as we’re done here) that you could recommend to give us further insights into your philosophical world?

RM: Sure, I’m thinking here of books that an interested person could pretty much just pick up and read. Some of these are famous, some are relatively neglected, and at least one is out of print.

Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Agree or disagree, this is still one of the most searching examinations of the relations between the ambitions of moral theory and the place of moral thinking in a human life.

Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. (Nearly) everyone cares about (some) movies, but this book is much more than that. It is one of the great texts of philosophical aesthetics, in particular for the role it gives to the question of modernism in the arts.

John Skorupski, English-Language Philosophy 1750-1945. For such a brief book, this gives a beautiful and enlightening account of the competing traditions of thought that gave birth to what we still think of as “analytic philosophy”, and gives a far more sophisticated account of the role of naturalism and the rejection of naturalism than we often hear today.

Alan Garfinkel, Forms of Explanation: Rethinking the Questions of Social Theory. How questions and explanations meet, and miss, each other. From way back in 1981, but still for me one of the best discussions of individualism, reduction, and holism in social explanation, with implications for political philosophy.

Arthur Lovejoy, Reflections on Human Nature. My colleague Doug Lavin introduced me to this book. Originally lectures, it’s a great read and a beautiful little history of the development of ideas of self-consciousness and what he calls “approbative desire”; that is, the human drive to see oneself in the imagined regard of others, and to care very much about that regard. Mostly the moral psychology of the 18th century. Whoever owns it should bring it back into print.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 19th, 2012.