If You Can't Talk About It, You Can't Talk About It* A Response to H.O. Mounce

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  • Philosophical Investigations 15:2 April 1992 ISSN 0190-0536 $2.50

    I f You Cant Talk About It, You Cant Talk About It* A Response to H.O. Mounce

    Patricia Hanna, University of Utah

    In On Nagel and Consciousness (citation, hereafter ONC), H. 0. Mounce defends Thomas Nagels treatment of the subjective in What Is It Like to Be a Bat? against my criticisms in Must Thinking Bats Be Conscious?* Mounce opens his paper with a scenario designed to bring the subjective (or inner) side of human experience to the fore, but his treatment of the issues raised in my paper fails to hit the mark. Ultimately, they contribute to the continuation of the same long-standing confusions in the philosophy of mind which block any adequate understanding of thought, intelligence and (indeed) consciousness by forcing philosophical positions into one or another unproductive model (behaviourism of physicalism or mentalism, and so on). In the end, Mounce would undo all the progress made by Wittgenstein with his insistence that what we need to do in philosophy is rule out certain questions and categories as misleading and confusing.

    Mounce begins his attack on my positon by accusing me of missing Nagels deep point about the subjective and the objective, viz. that the subjective is real and cannot be reduced to the objective. This point is, according to Mounce, both platitudinous and highly contentious (ONC, pp. 1-2). My paper is, on Mounces account, not a [penetration] beneath the superficial features of Nagels thought, characterizing its main drift rather than what lies on its surface (ONC, p. 3), but a simple misunderstandmg (or worse)

    * The advantage of this updated version (admittedly inspired by the example of the baseball legend Yogi Berra) of Wittgensteins rather more elegantly stated expression of the same thought (Wovon man nicht sprecht kann, dariiber mu8 man schweigen, Tracatus Lo~ico-Philosophicus) is that it makes clear just how tautological it is to say that if you cannot talk sensibly about some alleged phenomenon, then one simply cannot talk about it. 1. 2. MTBC.

    In Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press. 1979, pp. 165-180. Philosophical Investigation, vol. 13, no. 4, October 1990, pp. 350-356. Hereafter,

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    of Nagels thought. I attribute to Nagel views which are inconsistent with his explicit statement and miss the central point of this exposition, viz. the affirmation of the reality of inter- subjective as well as objective understanding (ONC, p. 3). None of this amounts to an accurate account of my views; a brief consideration of Mounces defence of Nagel against me will show this.

    Mounce roughly characterizes Nagels view as follows:

    There is no difference between asking what a pain is like and asking what it is like to be in pain. But there is evidently a difference between asking what a tree is like and what it is like to be a tree. Indeed the latter seems to make no sense. There is nothing it is like to be an object as there is something it is like to be a subject. (ONC, p. 1)

    Apparently, a subject can be approached from both the inside and outside, while a mere object can only be penetrated from the outside. My mistake consists in insisting that there is no difference between the two standpoints, and in reducing the subjective to the objective.

    Pace Mounce, this is too simple an account of the matter in several dimensions. On the one hand, I agree with Nagel that there does indeed seem to be a deep and irreducible difference between my experiences and those of (say) a tree, and that these differences do manifest themselves in something like the dichotomy which Mounces pairs of questions illustrate. On the other hand, I feel compelled to ask whether this perceived difference is really sufficient to support Nagels claims. Ones feelings and ones insistence on justification before using these feelings as evidence of anything pull in opposite directions. In MTBC, pp. 352-353, I offer an account of how one might come uncritically to accept the feelings as evidence within the context of a Cartesian picture of the world, why this uncritical acceptance will not do, and indicate how Nagel himself both recognizes the problems in this acceptance and a t the same time fails to address them.3

    Where I find Nagels account wanting is not its appeal to

    3. I agree with Nagels view that the subjective is real and irreducible; what I criticize in MTBC is not this, but the form of Nagels arguments in support of it. Where Nagel and I disagree is over my insistence that as described by Nagel, inner states have no role to play in meaning or understanding; in order for them to do this, they must be fixed by public (objective) criteria.

  • Patricia Hanna 187

    consciousness, but its appeal to what in my paper I call p- consciousness.4 The problem with p-consciousness (as used by Nagel and Mounce) is that we have no way of telling when appeal to it is justified and when it is not. O f course, I do not think of trees as conscious (any more than Mounce), but no matter how wide- spread this practice may be, it is still legitimate to ask why I do not so conceive them. My account gives an answer; neither Nagels nor Mounces does. In Nagels case, his admission that something further is needed, viz., an objective phenomenology, shows that he recognizes the legitimacy of the question, but has, at present, no ready answer. My argument is designed to show that there can (logically) be none.

    Mounce, however, rejects this argument on the grounds that it confuses public evidence with meaning, and rests on a commitment to verificationism.

    There is evidently a difference in saying that the concept of pain, for example, is linked to objective criteria and saying that one can give an objective account of pain. The two would be the same only if the understanding involved in exercising the concept were exhausted by its criteria. (ONC, p. 4)

    There are, he claims, two sources of my confusion. First, a misunderstanding of Wittgenstein; second, the doctrine of verifica- tionism (ONC, p. 6). I shall not address the first here, leaving it to the reader to look at the use of Wittgenstein in my original paper and decide for herself. With regard to the second, it is Mounce not I, who is confused; my view is many things, but it is not verificationism as presented by Mounce.

    Mounces arguments against me are motivated by his conviction that in insisting on an objective account of the mental, I am com- mitted to the view that the mental is exhausted by its objective signs. O n the contrary, my point (see MTBC, p. 352 E) is that if we are to talk about mental states in others, we must be able (among other things) to teach the terms describing these states to others, determine when we are correct and incorrect in our ascriptions, and ascertain with some tolerable degree of accuracy when we are being lied to by others about their mental states. All this requires that we be able to point to features which are available to both the subject and the audi- 4. Initially, p-consciousness can be read as private-consciousness; after the argument has been completed, it will be more appropriately read pseudo- consciousness (MTBC, note 5, p. 351).

  • 188 Philosophical lnvestigatiottr

    ence; it does not require that the features available only to both exhaust the features associated with the phenomenon.

    Nothing in my arguments commits me to a denial of pain as a felt experience, separate from its public rite ria.^ What I am committed to is the denial of any role to the subjective (for example, felt experiences) in grounding our understanding of a concept or fixing the meaning of a term. Here, Wittgensteins writings offer support at a number of places, including PI, 256- 257, 259, 263, 265, 271 and 293.

    I would, however, also argue for an even stronger point in this connection. The subjective cannot form any necessary part of our understanding of a concept. This view is characterized by Simon Blackburd as dilute semantic internalism (S W, Chapter 3, pp, 104 ft). Dilute semantic internalism is often expressed by the claim that no matter how well one grasps the public side of (say) pain, one cant really understand it, unless one has actually felt pain.

    There is a great deal that is appealing about such a position. Blackburn gives a nice account of the challenges facing the defender of this view.

    The challenge is to explain how, if our basic use of the concept is in our own case, we can ever come to exercise it in full generality. . .the real challenge is to say why it is the same concept in each case. . .a dilute semantic internalist cannot just say, for instance, that in my case I recognize and remember my private exemplars, but in your case I exercise the concept of pain by, for example, caring about you or reacting with emotion. . .He must go on to connect these two exercises: to show why it is appropriate to talk of one concept which I apply equally to you and to me. (SW, p. 106)

    And how do we make these connections? Blackburn suggests that it is by something like the following reasoning.

    . . .[the dilute semantic internalist] can point out that many of the things I know (or believe) about my own pains I also believe about yours: that it is no accident that this kind of sensation makes me behave in this kind of way; that there are ways in which I can conceal sensations, that sometimes I cannot, that there are ways for you to behave towards me if

    5. In Philosophirol Investigations, Wittgenstein remarks The proposition Sensations are private is comparable to: One always plays patience by oneself (248). As 1 read this, it is an expression of the same view as the one elaborated here. 6. Spreadirlg the Word, Oxford: 1984, herea