Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Oxford Conference in Review (Part II: Other People's Papers)

I sat in on three student papers and Ted Sider's keynote speech. I think I learned quite a bit from these talks.

I'll take them in order. (If I misrepresent what was said by anyone, which is probable, feel free to let me know and I'll try to fix it).

1. Mr. Wayne Wu (WW), "...Conceptual Content..."

Very roughly: WW argued that perceptual content was conceptual because certain psychological experiments suggest that semantic memory (which is conceptual) is involved in perceptually-guided tasks (like picking things up).

The Q&A session was enjoyable and packed with good, substantial questions. I was most interested in WW's criticism of "demonstrative" theories of intention, which he thought were unable to account for the amount and quality of information we receive when we perceive and successfully interact with objects. I had a question that I didn't get to ask because I didn't raise my hand soon enough, but it concerned whether WW was fair to demonstrative accounts (of perception or intention) when he characterized them as (1) committed to the idea that you can have a demonstrative thought about an object (or direct a demonstrative intention towards an object) so long as you can spatially locate the object, and (2) that you can locate an object (in this case, a hammer), by reaching out and touching a certain distinctive part of it (the handle, say). WW said that because the demonstrative theorist is committed to saying that such a person could have demonstrative thoughts about the hammer, but may not be able to successfully pick it up (not knowing what part of the handle he's touching, or where the head is, or whether it is obstructed by something), the demonstrative theorist didn't have an adequate account of how perception contributes to successful action. But when WW went on to contrast his own account of how perception contributes to successful action, he imagined a situation in which a subject could see the whole object that he intended to act on. But if one could only see a bit of the hammer (if it was protruding from under a couch, say), then one might very well have the same problem successfully picking it up. So I didn't think he really dispatched the demonstrative theorist, though I'm unsure of how important this is for the overall argument of his paper, which was enjoyable and provocative in many other respects.

2. Mr. Matthew Haug (MH), "Is Multiple Realizability Necessary for Irreducibility?"

MH gave a clear and well-reasoned argument that the answer to the question in his title is no. It is usually assumed that the multiple realizability of mental states in physical states is required for irreducibility. But MH wanted to suggest that another relation, the determinate-determinable property relation, gave us a way of seeing how mental properties are irreducible to their physical realizers. He said that the structure that realizes the mental property will be "multiply determinative", realizing many different mental properties, and so no 1-1 reduction of mental propeties to physical properties was possible. MH's paper was very clear and well presented. WW asked a question of MH's paper that I also was wondering about, namely, whether someone could respond to his paper by saying that the determinate mental properties are not all realized in the same physical "structure" (there was also some debate about the meaning and significance of "structure" in the paper), but by different, corresponding physical properties of the structure. Take, e.g., MH's example, "the structure of a cubical peg simultaneously realizes the peg's shape, color, mass, and rigidity". Mightn't one say that different elements of the structure realize the color, mass and rigidity of the peg?

3. Prof. Ted Sider, (TS), "Ontological Realism"

TS rocked the mic in front of a large gathering of philosophers in Exeter College's Saskatchewan room. He gave a fantastically clear and absorbing account of debates about the composition of objects. There was a great deal of interesting material in his paper, but what I found most interesting was a fertile methodlogical question he raised: what makes a dispute "merely verbal"? TS wanted to argue that debates about the composition of objects are not merely verbal, despite a common feeling that they are. I think it would be a productive project to look at other examples of someone claiming that something is a "merely verbal" dispute. The only example that immediately came to mind was Francois Recanti's charge in Direct Reference that the dispute between Evans/McDowell and various narrow content theorists over the role of mental content in action-explanation is merely verbal. (When I ran into Josef Stern this morning walking across the quad, he said that Hume says debates about god are merely verbal. If anyone knows of any other examples of philosophers (or members of the folk) saying that a debate is merely verbal or merely terminological, let me know.)

4. Mr. Daniel Whiting (DW), "Meaning Theories and the Principle of Humanity"

DW raised a concern about the modest meaning theories of McDowell and Wiggins. Here is my thumbnail version of the concern: if one aims merely to give a perspicuous overview of the way meaning, truth, force and psychological explanation interact, then why pursue that project by advocating a Davidsonian truth-theory for a language? Why begin the elucidatory project without helping oneself to the concept of meaning? I asked DW if he would agree with my feeling that if the goal of the modest theorists is to explore the way these important concepts are interdependent, then a project like J.L. Austin's might be more appropriate than a t-theory. He said that he thought that thinking about Austin's relevance to these kinds of questions was interesting.


Chauncey Maher said...


In *On Action* (1990), Carl Ginet contends that “The dispute about individuation of actions is not much more than a verbal issue.” He seems to think this is true because “None of the accounts considered is more ontologically parsimonious than the others: They disagree only about which of the things there are are properly called actions.” By "accounts considered" he means those of Anscombe-Davidson-Hornsby, Goldman and himself.

He seems to use the claim that it's not much more than a verbal dispute to fund the following line. “The individuation of action…is not one on which much else depends.”
“There is no other significant question in the philosophy of action that depends on it.”
“Whichever account one adopts, one can equally well state, discuss and defend answers to… ‘What is the general mark of action?’ ‘What is it for action to be intentional?’ ‘Is free action compatible with determinism?’ ‘What makes a reasons explanation of an action true?’”

Alfred Mele agrees in his "Introduction" to *Philosophy of Action* (1997).

I happen to think that this line suffers from forgetfulness about the connection of philosophy of action to moral philosophy. In particular, how actions are individuated matters to accounts of moral responsibility.

Most discussants in the debate over the individuation of action seem to think that the issue arises as follows. Suppose that Erin returns home from a long day of work, turns on the light in her living room, alerting a prowler, who has a heart attack and dies. Of this scenario, we might say: Erin moved her hand; Erin turned on the light; Erin alerted the prowler; Erin gave the prowler a heart attack; and Erin killed the prowler. The next step is to convert each of these sentences into a referring term by nominalizing them. Thus, we have:

(A) Erin’s moving of her hand;
(B) Erin’s turning on of the light;
(C) Erin’s alerting of the prowler;
(D) Erin’s giving the prowler a heart attack; and
(E) Erin’s killing of the prowler.

So converted, the question is: “Do these expressions refer to (or describe) a single action or several?”

It is not obvious why this is the question that has defined the debate over the individuation of action. For settling this question doesn’t obviously settle the question of how actions differ from one another (or of where one action starts and stops). For instance, we might agree that these expressions refer to or describe a single action, yet we might disagree as to which action is referred to and why. That is, we might disagree as to how one action differs from another (or as to where one action starts and stops). Or we might agree that each of these expressions refer to or describe a different action, but that does not settle how one action is different from another (or where one action starts and stops).

Nat Hansen said...


Thanks, this is an excellent example. I think it is funny that in the Ginet quote, the reason that he gives for the dispute being "not much more than a verbal issue" is that the accounts "disagree only about which of the things there are are properly called actions". But it seems debating what is properly called an "action" is just another way of debating what an action IS, which strikes me as a substantial thing to argue about.

So I wonder whether the purported fact that "no other significant question...depends on [the individuation of action]" is supposed to fund the "not much more than a verbal dispute" charge, rather than vice-versa, as you suggest. Only that way does the "not much more" charge have any weight at all.

But then there is clearly a substantial debate in the offing, as you point out: is it true that no other significant question depends on the individuation of action?