Monday, 2 October 2017

Writers' block

Asked by an ex-student why I was no longer writing a blog, I realised that the pat answer I offered – writers’ block – failed to shed any light on the phenomenon. For me the key phenomenon isn’t this. It isn’t primarily that I don’t know about what to write. At the level of a fallible glad start, I can suggest a variety of intriguing subjects. I say ‘fallible glad start’ because like the Wittgensteinian exclamation “Now I can go on!” it may be that the confidence proves misplaced when actually sitting down to write. But that is always the way. Nothing has changed.

Nor is it that I cannot or could not write anything. Under pressure, I’ve written many thousands of words on university business over the last six months. The issue, I think, is one of quality control. Concerning the things about which I want to write, I fear nothing I could write would be worth writing.

And at this point, a blindingly obvious thought strikes me. Why did I ever think, given the ridiculous amount of academic text produced every year, that I had anything worth adding to say? On this score, the current writers’ block isn’t the pathology. Rather, it was my previous garrulousness that looks suspect.

Reflecting a little more I realise that there is one further factor. I use the web as a way of thinking through the things that I am writing. I never assume that anyone reads it even though I do get emails of criticisms, objections, further thoughts etc. But one such regular interlocutor was a delightfully polite and thoughtful correspondent, an independent scholar and, where philosophy was concerned, something of an autodidact.

Sadly, he emailed and then later talked to me on the phone in Autumn to tell me he was dying and to give me his books. Before I had chance to visit him himself, he died. I realised, afterwards, that having had a particular audience in mind, even one I never met or talked to, gave even anonymous publishing on the web a more concrete purpose. Without it, it seemed less worth the candle. Goodbye and thanks, David Yates.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Friday, 19 May 2017

Language and the first-person perspective

On Wednesday, May 31st 2017

At: The Collaborating Centre for Values-Based Practice, St Catherine’s College University of Oxford, Manor Road OX 1 3UJ.

This one-day Advanced Seminar examines the theme of language and the first-person perspective from a number of disciplinary perspectives, with a particular focus upon the significance of these debates for people with people with mental health conditions. The seminar is the third annual meeting of the Values-Based Theory Network hosted by the St Catherine Collaborating Centre for Values-Based Practice, in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University.

How does it feel to be you acting in the world through the use of language or actively entertaining your own cognitions? And what happens when such a feeling is disrupted, ascribed to you by someone else or conferred upon something else?

Our experience of the surrounding world and of our own selves in thought and language is tightly linked to the first-personal sense of agency. As such, its loss, disruption or misattribution can severely affect all aspects of our conscious life. How we describe the experiences of mental illness also goes hand-in-hand with dignity and respect, and thus something that everyone working in mental health contexts needs to think carefully about.
In bringing together philosophers, psychologists, linguists and lay representatives, the Advanced Seminar strategically responds to the BSA (2015) Guidelines on the use of language in relation to functional psychiatric diagnosis platform statement that the profession needs to move towards a system which is no longer based on a ‘disease’ model, yielding public affirmation of the large and growing emerging evidence that experiences hitherto described in functional diagnostic terms may be better understood in psychosocial terms.

Our aim is to open up a co-creative multi-disciplinary dialogue between practitioners, academics and lay representatives about the ways we might think and argue differently about the benefit of re-appraising the first-person standpoint in understanding the experience of mental illness and self-knowledge through the use of language, with a view to identify creative techniques for patient empowerment, education and clinical treatment, in shaping future direction of the research and innovation collaboration.
Confirmed speakers:

Anna Bergqvist (Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University).
Eleanor Chatburn (Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford).
David Crepaz-Keay (Head of Empowerment and Social Inclusion, Mental Health Foundation).
Edward Harcourt (Philosophy, University of Oxford).
Veryan Richards (Lay participant and patient/carer representative, Royal College of Psychiatrists/The Collaborating Centre for Values-Based Practice).
Léa Salje (Philosophy, University of Leeds).
Elena Semino (Linguistics, Lancaster) and Zsófia Demjén (Linguistics, UCL).
Tim Thornton (Philosophy and Mental Health, University of Central Lancashire).

Contact and registration: Dr Anna Bergqvist. Email:


Wednesday, 3 May 2017

An introduction to Wittgenstein on the agreement or harmony between thought and reality

I was lucky enough to be invited to talk to my local U3A philosophy group on Wittgenstein today. Sadly I made the schoolboy error of trying to cover too much and so didn't let discussion develop properly and fully. Many years ago, I was able to spend a weekend introducing Wittgenstein at an adult education centre. A whole weekend, with time for discussion over a coffee or beer, may have contributed to my foolish thoughts about timing today. Anyway, here is a prose introduction to Wittgenstein on the harmony of thought and reality.
Background: what are propositional attitudes?
Propositional attitudes are mental states about things, states of affairs, events etc.
Suppose I am in my office in Preston and am asked where my cat is likely to be. I say, and think, Sootica is in the airing cupboard in my house in Kendal. So I have a thought or belief that Sootica is in the airing cupboard in my house in Kendal.
We can generate other examples of different kinds of thoughts. If asked where she will be later I can say, and think, I expect that she will be waiting by the door in Kendal when I get home. Or if asked where I last saw her I might say: I remember that she was waiting for a third breakfast by her bowl.
All of these cases are ‘propositional attitudes’, a posh phrase for a mental state about something, some state of affairs or possible fact.
Attitudes are expressed by verbs such as believe, hope, expect, fear, remember.
Propositions are express by the phrase after the word ‘that’ which describes a possible fact. Hence various propositional attitudes given by different attitudes taken towards different propositions.
·         I expect that Sootica will be waiting by the door in Kendal when I get home.
·         I believe that Sootica is in the airing cupboard in my house in Kendal.
·         I remember that Sootica was waiting for a third breakfast by her bowl.
The problem
If I am in Preston and I believe that Sootica is in the airing cupboard in my house in Kendal then I am in a mental state in Preston which concerns a possible state of affairs in Kendal. My mental state is about that possible fact. It represents it. It concerns her and the cupboard and her being in it.
What could such a mental state possibly consist in? How is it – so much as - possible to be in such a mental state? What is such aboutness? (In philosophy, the technical word for this is ‘intentionality’.)
What the problem isn’t
This isn’t the question of how one can be justified in thinking such a thing. Perhaps experience or others’ testimony is an answer to that. Nor is it a question of why one believes or expects something. Perhaps after a run of heads it is natural to expect the next coin toss is more likely to be tails. That is irrational but a natural expectation. Still that isn’t the problem. The problem is how one thinks it.
So not: what justifies the belief that Sootica is in the cupboard, nor why does one think it, but what sort of state is that?
There are many relational states but none seems right for explaining aboutness (in the way my thought is about Sootica). It is not, for example, a state of ‘being on top of’ (as a cat on a mat). Nor is it a state of ‘being 50 miles from’ (as Preston is from Kendal, that doesn’t make Preston about Kendal). Nor does it seem to be a state of ‘being caused by’. The airing cupboard temperature may be warmer because Sootica is in there breathing. Or she may be there because it is warmer than the house. But neither of those causes is ‘about’ Sootica being in the cupboard. So the attempt to shed light on how a mental state can be about something is not helped by most of the familiar relations that hold between things.
The aim of answering this is not armchair biology but rather to find a way that such a state doesn’t seem utterly mysterious and impossible.
Two possible solutions sadly fail
1: Thoughts as pictures
Perhaps having a mental state about something is explained by having a mental picture of that state of affairs? In other words, since pictures are familiar and unmysterious, we can use them to shed light on belief and other propositional attitudes.
What’s good about this suggestion?
Pictures are both about, but also independent of, what they depict. A picture can be of Sootica in the airing cupboard and it can still exist even if she is not in the cupboard. (Obviously!) So if a thought is a picture then that may explain how thought can be both about but also independent of what it concerns. In other words, it can be true or false, as thought obviously can be. (Similarly, an expectation can come true or not.)
What’s bad?
But a picture is utterly unlike what it depicts. It only represents it to someone who understands its rules of projection. A two dimensional picture only represents a three dimensional cat in a cupboard given the right rules of projection.
Now one may try to fix this problem by saying that thought is explained as having both a mental picture and a grasp of its rules of projection.
But if we take seriously the idea that thought is explained by pictures, thinking about the rules of projection (understanding them) will also have to be a matter of having a mental picture of them.
Perhaps we have a mental picture which is modelled on the following possible actual picture. A picture of both a real cat and also a person painting a picture of a cat with dotted lines connecting the former to the latter. (Such a picture might be in a book on the history of perspective in art.) The problem is that this too is a picture (of a cat and a picture of a cat) and it will only be understood by someone who understands its rules of projection.
So begins an infinite regress (when one calls for a picture of a picture of a picture of a cat…)
Thus thoughts cannot consist of pictures. We can explain pictures by invoking thoughts of what they are about but not the other way round. Even those people who ‘think in pictures’ think either about pictures or have pictures in their minds when also thinking. But pictures cannot explain thoughts.
2: Thoughts as (sort-of) perceptions
When I see (by contrast with think about from afar) that Sootica is in her cupboard, I am in a complicated state that involves me, Sootica, the cupboard and me being awake and alert to this fact. It is a relational state. Sootica herself is part of me seeing her. Seeing is not merely an inner event. I cannot see what is not there (evidence might be given in court to show I could not have seen the suspect, eg. Even if I thought I saw her if she was not there). Of course, I can think I see things that are not there but let’s focus on actual seeing. Could believing be a matter of sort-of-seeing, in some spooky way at a distance?
What’s good about this suggestion?
Because seeing is a relational state that involves, in this case, Sootica herself, that explains how my state of seeing can be about Sootica. She is part of the state. It would not count as a case of my seeing Sootica if she were not about to be seen. So unlike the picture explanation, this solves the problem of how propositional attitudes can be about actual states of affairs.
What’s bad?
But what happens if unbeknownst to me in Preston, Sootica isn’t in the cupboard in Kendal? If so, there isn’t a fact for me to sort-of-see. If my belief (that she is in the cupboard) is false, there isn’t a fact to explain what it is for me to have the belief (namely to sort-of-see, in a spooky way, from 50 miles distance, her in the cupboard).
Roughly: the picture explanation solves for false thought but not true thought and the sort-of-seeing theory solves for true thought but not false thought.
Are there any other accounts?
(One might say that computers and the web has aboutness. A Google inquiry yields truths about the world. But the inquiry yields patterns on screens which we interpret as about the world. In the background, much software and hardware engineering ensures ultimately through physics that the right patterns are displayed on the screen for a given use of the keyboard.)
Wittgenstein’s attempt to ease the tension
The above dilemma plays out in this passage:
442. I see someone aiming a gun and say “I expect a bang”. The shot is fired. - What! – was that what you expected? So did that bang somehow already exist in your expectation? Or is it just that your expectation agrees in some other respect with what occurred; that that noise was not contained in your expectation, and merely supervened as an accidental property when the expectation was being fulfilled? a But no, if the noise had not occurred, my expectation would not have been fulfilled; the noise fulfilled it; it was not an accompaniment of the fulfilment like a second guest accompanying the one I expected. Was the feature of the event that was not also in the expectation something accidental, an extra provided by fate? – But then, what was not an extra? Did something of the shot already occur in my expectation? –
Then what was extra? for wasn’t I expecting the whole shot.
“The bang was not as loud as I had expected.” – “Then was there a louder bang in your expectation?”
It seems that the actual event in the future, in all its later detail, cannot actually exist earlier in my mental state (I could not sort-of-see it in the future). And yet: that bang is what I did expect.
This is the bind of the dilemma described above. Wittgenstein sidesteps it.
443. “The red which you imagine is surely not the same (not the same thing) as the red which you see in front of you; so how can you say that it is what you imagined?” – But haven’t we an analogous case with the sentences “Here is a red patch” and “Here there isn’t a red patch”. The word “red” occurs in both; so this word can’t indicate the presence of something red.
The interlocutor stresses the apparent distinction between an object of thought and a worldly feature; Wittgenstein replies with a baffling analogy with two contrasting assertions. So why should one think that colours in the imagination must be different to physical coloured samples? In this kind of case there is a plausible motivation. Imagining the colour red might be assumed to involve having a red mental image before the mind’s eye. If so, the question of whether the red mental image is the same colour as a worldly sample of redness is pressing.
The response, however – the suggested ‘analogous case’ – looks to concern something quite different, the meaning of the word ‘red’ in two contrasting sentences. But the second sentence - “Here there isn’t a red patch” – functions no less well than the previous sentence even without the presence of anything red. And hence the suggested diagnosis: if imagining something red is modelled on a sentence about redness rather than a red mental image, the problem of comparing inner and outer reds can be sidestepped. This line of thought is clearer in the next pair of remarks.
444. One may have the feeling that in the sentence “I expect he is coming” one is using the words “he is coming” in a different sense from the one they have in the assertion “He is coming”. But if that were so, how could I say that my expectation had been fulfilled? If I wanted to explain the words “he” and “is coming”, say by means of ostensive explanations, the same explanations of these words would go for both sentences. But now one might ask: what does his coming look like? - The door opens, someone walks in, and so on. - What does my expecting him |131| to come look like? - I walk up and down the room, look at the clock now and then, and so on. - But the one sequence of events has not the slightest similarity to the other! So how can one use the same words in describing them? - But then perhaps I say, as I walk up and down: “I expect he’ll come in.” - Now there is a similarity here. But of what kind?!
Again the passage concerns the connection between a mental state and a worldly event that satisfies or fulfils it. This time, the initial worry is with the content of a first person linguistic expression of an expectation and a description of an event that satisfies it. But why might one think that the phrase ‘he is coming’ has two different senses depending on whether it is part of the former or an assertion concerning the latter? One reason would be if one thought that in the two uses, it stood for two different things: a merely mental object and a worldly event. This would echo the previous difference between colour as imagined and actual sample.
Again Wittgenstein switches to language. The connection between a mental state and worldly event holds in virtue of our use of the same linguistic phrase. ‘He is coming’ can be used both to individuate the expectation and to report the event or fact that satisfies it. Hence the climax:
445. It is in language that an expectation and its fulfilment make contact.
And hence the official Wittgensteinian line:
429. The agreement, the harmony, between thought and reality consists in this: that if I say falsely that something is red, then all the same, it is red that it isn’t. |128| And in this: that if I want to explain the word “red” to someone, in the sentence “That is not red”, I do so by pointing to something that is red.
Answers to homework questions
1.      What general notion does McDowell invoke in Mind and World to explain (or rather to make un-mysterious) thought’s bearing on the world? What ‘-ism’ applies to this (though generally familiar in a slightly different area of philosophy)?
Experience and empiricism. In other words, he tries to show how thought is possible by comparing it to perception. Light enters the mind via experience. That may be true but what of false thought?
2.       Does McDowell offer a symmetric account of the cases of truth and falsity?
No. He only directly addresses the case of true thought. This makes false thought mysterious.
3.       Does McDowell’s explanatory notion play any role in Wittgenstein’s discussion (here)?
No. Wittgenstein does not mention experience. His key idea is language.
4.       Is there reason to think that Wittgenstein treats cases of truth and falsity (satisfaction or not) differently?
No especially since he attempts to account for the harmony of thought and reality through the case of falsehood: ‘if I say falsely that something is red, then all the same, it is red that it isn’t’.
5.       With what other phenomena does Wittgenstein compare intentional mental states (ie states that are about possible events / facts)?
As well as a range of mental states (expectations, imaginings, wishes, plans), he invokes orders and descriptive sentences.
6.       In a nutshell, what is Wittgenstein’s account of the connection between mental states and what they are about?
We use the same language to describe both facts and mental states. It is merely truistic that the expectation that he is coming is satisfied by him coming.
7.       What follow up questions does that raise?

So if mental states hook up to the world by descriptions, how does language hook up to the world? How do we know what mental state we are in? Does the linguistic connection between a mental state and what fulfils it create that connection or report one that was already there? If the latter, in what fact does that connection consist? Wasn’t that the connection we started with? (I think progress has been made!)

Friday, 21 April 2017

Latest Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry bulletin

The latest edition of the Association for Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry newsletter from its secretary/editor and president James Phillips and Peter Zachar is now out.

It is a 56 page summary by the author, and set of commentaries from leading philosophers of psychiatry, on Peter's recent A Metaphysics of Psychopathology from MIT Press.

My own contribution (previously posted here) is included and Peter's response to it is one of his many responses. I will be keen to find out how he responded to my worry that in his attempt to police a boundary between what lay within and without experience, he said too much (by his own standards) about what lay outside it (again, on his own account). Curious also to find myself in the same camp as my colleague and friend Rachel Cooper.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

At the Hermeneutic Phenomenology Symposium at UCLan today

I was generously invited by my colleague Gill Thomson to sit at the back of a one day workshop on hermeneutic phenomenological social science at UCLan today. I have just listened to the first two talks, one (by Bridget Taylor) on sexuality and intimacy in couples with a dying partner and the other (Lesley Kay) on the views of childbirth in advance of experiencing it of expectant mothers. In both cases, the aim was to capture the thoughts and experiences of those concerned and hence both were clearly phenomenological, in the sense in which it applies to social science. Both were fascinating; the former was also rather moving.

Both were also phenomenological in a second sense. They actively drew on Heideggerian vocabulary and ideas explicitly in the analysis they offered. To take just one example, Bridget Taylor invoked Heidegger's discussion of technology as a particular attitude to the world, seeing it as offering resources in the form of 'standing reserve', in order to discuss the taking of Viagra. She suggested that light could be shed on the generally (in fact, entirely, in her study) negative views of it by participants by seeing it as involving a merely technological view of the body and the penis (seeing the body thus as merely a standing resource) in a way that undermined intimacy. Similar familiar notions such as being towards death, idle talk, the they etc were deployed in both sets of analysis.

It strikes me as interesting and quirky that Heidegger and a few other philosophers play this role of providing a vocabulary for social science analysis and the case for it this morning was that it seemed to work, in some cases, such as the viagra example, in quite striking ways. So it may be that the vocabulary receives a kind of justificatory support bottom up from such empirical work. But the vocabulary is obviously deployed top down. It is because Heiddegger wrote his essay 'On the question concerning technology' that that vocabulary became available and hence is now applied in social science.

And hence this suggests a question. Might there not be a tension between these two senses of 'phenomenology' in social science? That is, imposing a top down vocabulary from a dead German on the utterances of the living (most of whom will not have heard of him) might distort a neutral account of their take on the world, their experiences and thoughts. Wouldn't it be more phenomenological in the first sense to give up this vocabulary - unless that is that one's participants are Heideggerian philosophers - and simply to try to re-present the participants only in their own words? Replace Heidegger with the approach sketched by the Wittgenstenian philosopher Peter Winch?

Monday, 27 March 2017

Values and the singular aims of idiographic inquiry

I have been revising a presentation I prepared for a conference on ‘idiographic science’ in Naples last year. I still like the basic idea that idiographic inquiry is not so much a different form of judgement - in the way that I am unfashionable enough to think that understanding is a distinct form of judgement from explanation, that there is something in that distinction - but something seems amiss in the middle where I try to use Christoph Hoerl’s discussion of Jaspers on understanding. And can I really get away with saying so little as to what an idiographic interest is: an analogy with the Daily Express’s fascination with Lady Di?

Values and the singular aims of idiographic inquiry


In response to the concern that criteriological psychiatric diagnosis, based on the DSM and ICD classifications, pigeon-holes patients, there have been calls for it to be augmented by an idiographic formulation [IDGA Workgroup, WPA 2003]. I have argued elsewhere that this is a mistake [Thornton 2008a, 2008b, 2010]. Looking back to its original proponent Wilhelm Windelband yields no clear account of the contrast between idiographic and nomothetic judgement. Abstracting from Jaspers’ account of understanding an idea of idiographic judgement based on the contrast between singular and general causal relations also fails. I argue, however, that Windelband does provide a helpful clue in his remark that ‘every interest and judgement, every ascription of human value is based upon the singular and the unique... Our sense of values and all of our axiological sentiments are grounded in the uniqueness and incomparability of their object’ [Windelband 1980: 182]. This suggests a role for the idiographic not as the content of a particular kind of judgement but rather as characterising its aim. I argue that this connects to the issue of the generalisability of small scale qualitative social science research and to the critique of ‘looking away’ in moral philosophy.

Key words

Causation, explanation, idiographic, interventionism, Jaspers, nomothetic, understanding, Windelband.


The idea that psychiatric diagnosis or, more broadly, psychiatric formulation should include an idiographic element is explicit in publications by psychiatrists working on the WPA initiative Psychiatry for the Person. It forms part of the explicitly broad conception of diagnosis called a comprehensive model or concept of diagnosis. The Idiographic (Personalised) Diagnostic Formulation closely connects a comprehensive model with an idiographic component:

This comprehensive concept of diagnosis is implemented through the articulation of two diagnostic levels. The first is a standardised multi-axial diagnostic formulation, which describes the patient’s illness and clinical condition through standardised typologies and scales... The second is an idiographic diagnostic formulation, which complements the standardised formulation with a personalised and flexible statement. [IDGA Workgroup, WPA 2003: 55]

The role of the idiographic aspect is to complement and contrast a general approach through ‘typologies and scales’ with something personal and individual. The psychiatrist James Phillips makes this individual focus explicit: ‘In the most simple terms, a[n] idiographic formulation is an individual account’ [Phillips: 2005: 182 italics added].

But this raises the following question. If an idiographic element is to be a genuine complement to general typologies and scales, what kind of understanding of an individual does it comprise? How is it different from criteriological diagnosis, for example? Although the term ‘idiographic’ has a settled use in psychological research to refer to small scale qualitative studies, that use does not explain how an idiographic element would be a genuine complement to criteriological diagnosis in psychiatry which already aims at individuals rather than general populations.

Windelband and individuals

The distinction between idiographic and nomothetic forms of understanding was first introduced by Wilhelm Windelband in his rectoral address of 1894. Windelband, as a post-Kantian philosopher, was familiar with the debate about the relation of the human and natural sciences called the ‘Methodenstreit’, a debate which shaped, for example, psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers’ views of the importance of empathy for understanding psychopathology [Thornton 2007: 90-2]. That distinction is usually thought of as a distinction between explanation and understanding. Jaspers contrasts explanation in terms of causal connections with understanding of meaningful connections (and further subdivides understanding into phenomenology and empathy, for example) [Jaspers 1974]. This has in turn led modern philosophers, especially those in the Wittgensteinian tradition, to characterise understanding as a form of intelligibility suited for the meaning-laden actions and utterances of rational animals hence stressing its rational and normative character that ‘finds no echo in physical theory’ [Davidson 1980: 231].

In his address, however, Windelband stresses instead that the difference between nomomethetic and idiographic, whilst still a distinction in method or form of knowledge rather than subject matter, concerns the difference between general and particular.

In their quest for knowledge of reality, the empirical sciences either seek the general in the form of the law of nature or the particular in the form of the historically defined structure. On the one hand, they are concerned with the form which invariably remains constant. On the other hand, they are concerned with the unique, immanently defined content of the real event. The former disciplines are nomological sciences. The latter disciplines are sciences of process or sciences of the event. The nomological sciences are concerned with what is invariably the case. The sciences of process are concerned with what was once the case. If I may be permitted to introduce some new technical terms, scientific thought is nomothetic in the former case and idiographic in the latter case. Should we retain the customary expressions, then it can be said that the dichotomy at stake here concerns the distinction between the natural and the historical disciplines. [Windelband 1980: 175-6]

Windelband remarks that the distinction he is attempting to frame is not based on a distinction of substances: sciences of nature or natural science [Naturwissenschaften], versus the sciences of the mind [Geisteswissenschaften]. Such a distinction is hostage to the fortunes of that dualism. If the reductionist project of explaining mental properties in physical terms were successful then that contrast would be undermined.

Even with these characterisations in play, however, the distinction as so far introduced is not clear. Consider the contrast between ‘what is invariably the case’ and ‘what was once the case’. There are three problems with using this contrast to characterise a notion of ‘idiographic’. First, it threatens to slip back from a methodological distinction of how a subject matter is approached to the underlying nature of the events in question (whether, as a matter of fact, they are invariant or unique). Second, a substantive distinction does not explain in what way an idiographic understanding differs from any other sort. Third, the uniqueness of its subject matter cannot separate the idiographic and nomothetic. The gravitational forces on a mass, for example, depend in principle on a vector sum of its relation with every other object in the universe and thus some of the events described by physics are likely to be unique.

One of the clues Windelband himself offers is to suggest that history is a paradigm of idiographic sciences which ‘provide a complete and exhaustive description of a single, more or less extensive process which is located within a unique, temporally defined domain of reality’ [Windelband 1980: 174] However, this does not explain how historical explanation differs from physics, say. Windelband’s further comments about historical judgement are unhelpful. He says:

[H]istory seeks structural forms… [Windelband 1980: 178]

[I]n the historical sciences,… [thought] is devoted to the faithful delineation of the particulars… [ibid: 178]

The historian’s task… is to breathe new life into some structure of the past in such a way that all of its concrete and distinctive features acquire an ideal actuality or contemporaneity. His task, in relation to what really happened, is similar to the task of the artist, in relation to what exists in his imagination. [ibid: 178]

But the task of ‘describing structure’ is shared by some nomothetic sciences like chemistry. ‘Delineation of particulars’ is also the common aim of both idiographic and nomothetic sciences. The physics of a particular mass concerns that individual. Talk of ‘ideal actuality’ may be uniquely appropriate for the idiographic sciences but hardly sheds light on what this amounts to.

It might be assumed that using history as a paradigm suggests a connection to the other broad way of construing the Methodenstreit mentioned above as marking a distinction between explaining natural events and understanding meaning-laden events or rational subjects. But Windelband offers an example of historical understanding that is of a merely biological process, which show that this is not what he has in mind.

Consider… the subject matter of the biological sciences as evolutionary history in which the entire sequence of terrestrial organisms is represented as a gradually formative process of descent or transformation which develops in the course of time. There is neither evidence nor even a likelihood that this same organic process has been repeated on some other planet. In this case, the science of organic nature is an idiographic or historical discipline. [Windelband 1980: 176]

In summary, although Windelband coins a distinction between idiographic and nomothetic, stresses that it is a distinction of a form of intellibility rather than of types of subject matter and offers history as an example of the idiographic, it remains unclear what the distinction amounts to.

Elsewhere I have suggested that the appeal of idiographic judgement stems from a recoil from subsuming human individuals under conceptual categories – from pigeon-holing people – and hence instead attempting to understand them in other ways or other terms, a kind of ‘individualising intuition’ [Thornton 2008a, 2008b, 2010]. The problem is then to explain what novel form of judgement would address this task. If judgement in general takes a subject predicate form – s is P – then there are two elements to consider: the referential element and the predicational element.

The referential element does not seem to be a hopeful place to look to draw a distinction between nomothetic and idiographic. Consider the traditional deductive-nomological model of explanation as an example. This contains general laws (hence the name). But it also refers to particular circumstances in the explanans. Whether an adequate formal model of explanation or not, since the DN model of explanation is designed to fit paradigmatically nomothetic sciences mere singular reference to particular circumstances is not sufficient to distinguish a different form of intelligibility.

But ‘individualising’ the predicational element seems equally unpromising albeit in a different way. Such a predicate would have to be designed for a particular single element carrying with it no possible application to, and hence comparison with, other individuals. What could such a predicate be? What property would be picked out such that it could not possible apply to other cases? The closest idea seems to be a kind of name designed for specific individual (person or event). But that collapses this proposal back into the referential element of the judgement. In neither way can the ‘individualising intuition’ be satisfied through a novel form of judgement.

Singular causation

I suggested earlier that Windelband’s distinction between idiographic and nomothetic is a distinct variant of a broader discussion of the difference between human and natural sciences that in more familiar forms concerns understanding and explanation. In this section I will attempt to construct a conception of idiographic judgement by taking a version of understanding (by contrast with explanation) that stresses individual cases and then subtracting characteristically mental elements from it. Nevertheless, I will argue, the result fails to shed light on Windelband’s distinction between idiographic and nomothetic.

The distinction between understanding and explanation plays a key role in Karl Jaspers’ discussion of psychopathology although it is not carefully articulated and distinguished. Christophe Hoerl suggests that Jaspers’ contrast has both an epistemic and ontological dimension [Hoerl 2013]. Epistemically, the distinction runs as follows:

Explaining, Jaspers thinks, requires repeated experience – it is achieved by “observation of events, by experiment and the collection of numerous examples” (GP, 3 p. 302), which allow us to formulate general rules and theories. Understanding, by contrast, is achieved (if it is achieved) directly upon confrontation with a particular case. As Jaspers also puts it, “[p]sychological understanding cannot be used mechanically as a sort of generalized knowledge but a fresh, personal intuition is needed on every occasion” (GP, p. 313). We might thus say that Jaspers subscribes to a form of epistemic particularism regarding understanding. Understanding is not achieved by bringing certain facts under general laws established through repeated observation. Rather, the grasp it delivers of how one psychic event emerges from another in a particular case strikes us “as something self-evident which cannot be broken down any further” (GP, p. 303). [Hoerl 2013: 108]

Ontologically, understanding and explanation chart different aspects of reality: meaningful psychic connections and rules of causality, respectively. Hoerl points out that Jaspers suggests that the former are not causal. In this, he resembles the 1970s Wittgensteinian philosophers criticised by Donald Davidson in his ‘Actions, reasons and causes’ [Davidson 1980: 3-19]. But Hoerl objects both that this makes it ‘quite obscure what genuine epistemic gain understanding could deliver’ [Hoerl 2013: 109] and also that Jasper’s talk of events ‘emerging’ from others seems to be a causal notion [ibid: 110]. The difficulty here is a dilemma. If understanding is construed as non-causal then it risks epistemic obscurity. But if it is causal, it risks collapsing into explanation.

Hoerl suggests a reconciliation via the distinction between singular and general causation. General causation links properties. Singular causation is token causation between two actual events. He cites Elizabeth Anscombe who stresses the importance of singular causation and rejects neo-Humean nomological accounts of causation. She argues that:

[C]ausality consists in the derivativeness of an effect from its causes. This is...the common feature of causality in its various kinds. Effects derive from, arise out of, come of, their causes. For example, everyone will grant that physical parenthood is a causal relation. Here the derivation is material, by fission. Now analysis in terms of necessity or universality does not tell us of this derivedness of the effect; rather, it forgets about that. For the necessity will be that of the laws of nature; through it we shall be able to derive knowledge of the effect from knowledge of the cause, or vice versa, but that does not show us the cause as source of the effect. Causation, then, is not to be identified with necessitation. [Anscombe 1981: 136]

There is some debate about whether the distinction between singular and general causation implies that there are two distinct concepts of causation or whether some shared notion can accommodate both [Hitchcock 1995]. But the distinction between particular instances of causation and general causal conncetions between properties is clear enough to suggest a solution to the dilemma Jaspers faces. Hoerl suggests that:

When he talks about (mere) causal explanation, what he has in mind are general causal claims linking types of events. Understanding, by contrast, is concerned with singular causation in the psychological domain – i.e. with the particular way in which one psychic event emerges from or arises out of another on a particular occasion. [Hoerl 2013: 111]

This fits Jaspers claim that ‘Psychic events ‘emerge’ out of each other in a way we understand’ [Jaspers 1997: 302]

This contrast between particular and general is suggestive of Windelband’s distinction between idiographic and nomothetic. But it will not do as an account of the latter because Jaspers’ notion of understanding is restricted to the mental realm whereas Windelband suggests that it would be possible to take an idiographic approach to episodes of evolutionary history. So could this restriction be stripped away to leave something with a focus on particular cases but not restricted to the mental?

To consider this, I will sketch John Campbell’s discussion of interventionism in the context of psychiatry. Hoerl also moves from outlining his suggestion for interpretation of Jaspers to an account of Campbell. But his aim is to contrast the Anscombian idea of an effect arising out of a cause – a notion which fits Jaspers account of empathic understanding – with Campbell’s interventionism. My aim is to use Campbell to abstract from Hoerl’s suggested interpretation of Jaspers a more general notion of intelligibility which contrasts the particular and the general. Again, I will argue that it does not help shed light on Windelband.

Campbell’s discussion of interventionism within psychology and psychiatry starts by rejecting two connections which philosophers find natural: between non-mental causal connections and mechanisms and between mental causal connections and rational relations.

Campbell suggests that there is an analogy between:

1 the idea that propositional attitude ascriptions depend on the ascription of rationality to the subject, and 
2 the idea that all causal interactions between pieces of matter must be comprehensible in mechanistic terms. Both ideas express an insight – that we find it extremely puzzling when we encounter causal relations among propositional attitudes that are not broadly rational, just as we find it extremely puzzling when we encounter causal interactions between physical objects that are not mechanistic, and that involve spooky ‘action-at-a-distance’. Both ideas express a natural impulse of philosophers – to elevate this kind of point into a kind of synthetic a priori demand that reason makes on the world. This impulse has to be resisted. [Campbell 2009: 142]

Campbell concedes that, in both cases, there is a genuine insight. As a matter of custom and habit, we find an absence of material mechanisms and an absence of rational connections between mental states puzzling. But in both cases it is a characteristic philosophical error to promote this natural expectation into a justified a priori claim that the world must respect. Mere custom and habit cannot rationally sustain any such demand on how the world must be.

Campbell rejects the necessity of both physical mechanisms and rational connections in favour of an interventionist approach to causation. With respect to the latter, he argues:

Suppose you believe: 1 that this man is stroking his chin, and 2 that this man believes you need to shave. What is it for the first belief to be a cause of the second? On the interventionist analysis, it is for the intervention on the first belief to be a way of changing whether you have the second belief. So if some external force changed your belief that this man is stroking his chin, you would no longer believe that he believes you need to shave. There is no appeal to rationality here, no appeals to mechanism. [Campbell 2009: 143]

The causal connection between one state and another is underpinned in interventionist terms based on the idea that if intervening on the first belief is a stable way of bringing about a change in the second then this is sufficient for there to be a causal connection between them.

For propositional attitudes to count as causes of other propositional attitudes such as delusions, Campbell suggests two conditions have to be met. There should be ‘systematic relations between cause variables and the subsequent delusion’ and there should be a correlation between a change of the cause and a change of the effect [Campbell 2009: 146]. More generally for the causal explanation of mental states, the causal variables, which he calls ‘control variables’, should have large, specific and systematic correlations with their effects akin to the way the controls of a car systematically control its behaviour. These conditions do not require a rational connection, however.

The classical philosophical approach has been to regard propositional attitudes as part of a ‘conceptual scheme’ that we bring to bear in describing the ordinary world. This conceptual scheme is taken to have strong a priori constraints on its applicability. In particular, as we have seen, rationality is taken to be a norm with which the scheme has to comply... The appeal I have just been making to the notion of a control variable is intended to replace this invocation of rationality... [I]t is the fact that we have control variables, not the fact that we have rationality, which means that we are ‘at the right level’ to talk of beliefs and desires. [Campbell 2009: 147]

Taken together, Hoerl’s and Campbell’s accounts suggest a recipe for constructing a concept of idiographic judgement. Hoerl suggests that Jaspers’ version of understanding charts singular psychological causal relations and that singular causal relations can be construed on either Anscombian or interventionist terms. Campbell argues, on interventionist grounds, that the assumption that causal connections between psychological states must presuppose rational relations between them is mistaken as is the parallel assumption about physical mechanisms. There need be neither a physical mechanism nor a kind of psychological rational equivalent of mechanism for causation to hold in either the physical or the psychological ream, respectively.

This rejection of mechanism (either a literal physical mechanism or a rational analogue) may seem to count against Anscombe’s idea of effects arising out of, or coming of, their causes and Jaspers idea of meaningful connections. That, at least, is Hoerl’s view. But it might equally be thought that the counterfactuals underpinning interventionism illuminate rather than contrast Anscombe’s central idea of causality. Whichever is the case, the combination of singular causation and interventionism without rational or physical mechanism suggests an austere view abstracted from and hence no longer tied to the psychological realm. Hence the possibility that this might offer substance to Windelband’s emphasis on the particular rather than the meaningful. Perhaps idiographic judgement trades in singular causal relations shorn of rational relations?

Although emphasis on the singular looks to be a promising match to Windelband’s sketch of the idiographic, it will not do for three reasons. First, it would be a distinction of subject matter rather than the form of intelligibility: an ontological distinction between actual token causal relations rather than general properties. Second, that distinction does not seem a helpful way of distinguishing disciplines. For example, astronomy would count as ‘nomothetic’ when dealing general causal claims such as the behaviour of solar systems in general but ‘idiographic’ when applied to the historical behaviour of particular planets. Third, whilst interventionism does not require the existence of laws of nature to underpin causal claims, it does require relations of some generality and invariance across some range of interventions [Woodward 2003: 239-314]. The possibilities of intervention or manipulation require relations of some generality. Hence if singular causal claims are accounted for using interventionism, their understanding presupposes some general claims, thus undermining a distinction of kind.

In summary, the idea in this section was the following. It might be possible to spell out a notion of idiographic judgement by looking at one version of the related distinction within the Methodenstreit between understanding and explanation. According to Hoerl’s interpretation of Jaspers, understanding concerns singular causation in the psychological domain. Such causation is, on one model at least, underpinned by the idea of intervention rather than nomological generality. Further, according to Campbell, even in the psychological domain, such singular causation need not trade in rational relations. At this point in the combination of ideas, the analysis offered may no longer be an account of Jasperian understanding but seems, partly for that very reason, to be a promising match for Windelband’s emphasis on particularity within and without the mental realm. Sadly, the distinction between singular and general causal relations is a poor match for Windelband’s requirement for a distinction in form of intelligibility rather than subject matter.

Values and the singular aims of idiographic inquiry

So far I have suggested that two broad approaches to filling out Windelband’s account of idiographic understanding have failed. Attempting to articulate a form of judgement that eschews implicit comparison between individuals undermines the content of the putative judgements. Stressing singular rather than general causation produces a distinction of subject matter rather than a distinction in between forms of intelligibility.

In this final section I will sketch a different approach. The clue comes from another passage in Windelband’s rectoral address in which he again stresses the importance of the contrast between the general and specific to his distinction of nomothetic and idiographic.

[T]his distinction connects with the most important and crucial relationship in the human understanding, the relationship which Socrates recognized as the fundamental nexus of all scientific thought: the relationship of the general to the particular. [Windelband 1980: 175]

The commitment to the generic is a bias of Greek thought, perpetuated from the Eleatics to Plato, who found not only real being but also real knowledge only in the general. From Plato this view passed to our day. Schopenhauer makes himself a spokesman for this prejudice when he denies history the value of a genuine science because its exclusive concern is always with grasping the specific, never with comprehending the general... But the more we strive for knowledge of the concept and the law, the more we are obliged to pass over, forget, and abandon the singular fact as such… [ibid: 181]

So far these passages repeat the importance of the singular over the general that has already been discussed. But in explaining why this is important, Windelband introduces a further element:

In opposition to this standpoint, it is necessary to insist upon the following: every interest and judgment, every ascription of human value is based upon the singular and the unique... Our sense of values and all of our axiological sentiments are grounded in the uniqueness and incomparability of their object. [Windelband 1980: 182]

Now in one respect this does not help since it merely stresses the the uniqueness and incomparability of the objects of idiographic judgement and, as the discussion above has suggested, this does not help single out a form of judgement or intelligibility to stand in opposition to the nomothetic. But there is a further idea: that what we as subjects value in judgement and sentiment is tied to uniqueness and incomparability.

This is a contentious claim and it is far from obvious that it is true. The Categorical Imperative implies, to the contrary, that love of the good has an essential generality. More mundanely, one might value a piece of industrial design – a car, bicycle or cutlery – despite or even because of its mass production. But there are some cases where value seems to be tied to uniqueness: feelings of love and friendship directed to particular individuals – by contrast with a generalized love of humanity – being paradigmatic.

This suggests a different way of thinking about the idiographic: not as a novel form of judgement or intelligibility but rather as pertaining to the nature of interest taken in its subject matter. In some cases, one is interested in individuals because they are instances of generalities. In others, the interest is in them as individuals.

Here is a mundane example of the contrast. In 2009, UK members of parliament (MPs) were found to have taken part in widespread abuse of their expenses system to augment their incomes. UK newspapers investigated many such cases and every day printed new instances of the absurd financial claims made. But the focus seemed to be to use each new instance to justify the general claim that MPs as a whole were a corrupt group rather than having an interest in any previously obscure MP. The reputation of politicians as a class of people was the target. By contrast, in 1997 Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash provoking much newspaper coverage. One particular newspaper – the Daily Express – continued, for a decade afterwards (!), to favour for its front cover any story about the late princess. But the claims advanced were not intended to shed light on royalty, or even princesses, in general. Rather the focus was relentlessly on Diana herself. The interest was, in the sense I have suggested, idiographic.

One consequence of moving the conception of idiographic from a form of intelligibility to the nature of the interest taken in individuals is that it places no constraints on the kind of intelligibility in play. Materials from either side of the traditional explanation versus understanding distinction, for example, could be deployed for idiographic purposes. No attempt need be made to frame descriptions that could only fit one individual.

Given this, however, it may seem that the contrast between idiographic and nomothetic as proposed does not amount to very much. What does it matter with what interest or value the subject matter of idiographic inquiry is approached if the actual judgements offered are as they would be in nomothetic inquiry?

In response to this question I will suggest two general consequences. The first is that idiographic inquiry – so understood – can simply escape one of the conceptual challenges of small scale qualitative social science research. This is the question of whether and how the results can be generalised. By contrast with large scale often quantitative research, a narrow but deep qualitative focus may not be based on a statistically significant sample and hence may not reliably generalise to other individuals or populations. But if not, what is the point of the inquiry? Idiographic inquiry, however, can bite on this bullet because it has no interest in other individuals or populations. Like the Daily Express’s interest in Diana, its focus is on the particular for the sake of the particular.

The second is that idiographic inquiry is naturally resistant to a source of error that Jonathan Dancy calls ‘looking away’ [Dancy 1993]. This is a virtue he claims for particularism over generalism in moral philosophy. Generalism claims that moral judgements can be codified in context-independent principles. Particularism opposes this and insists that small differences in a particular situation can reverse their moral valence. Hence Dancy argues from his particularist commitments for the importance of scrutinising particular situations with great care rather than being distracted by a premature comparison of that situation with others.

Particularism claims that generalism is the cause of many bad moral decisions, made in the ill-judged and unnecessary attempt to fit what we are to say here to what we have said on another occasion. We all know the sort of person who refuses to make the decision here that the facts are obviously calling for, because he cannot see how to make that decision consistent with one he made on a quite different occasion. We also know the person (often the same person) who insists on a patently unjust decision here because of having made a similar decision in a different case. It is this sort of looking away that the particularists see as the danger in generalism. Reasons function in new ways on new occasions, and if we don’t recognize this fact and adapt our practice to it, we will make bad decisions. Generalism encourages a tendency not to look hard enough at the details of the case before one. [Dancy 1993: 64]

Although the motivation differs, idiographic inquiry ‘sees’ its subject matter not primarily as interesting because it instances generalities but interesting for being the particular individual it is. And hence, whilst any subject matter will instance generalities – and such is the content of the any judgement made about it – the focus is bottom up: from individual to general characteristics rather than top-down from generalities to instances.


Recent calls for psychiatry to augment criteriological diagnosis with a more individualistic element have glossed this as an idiographic element. But this prompts the question of what the idiographic could amount to. Windelband’s various characterisations do not yield a distinct account of a form of judgement to contrast with nomothetic judgement. Nor is the use of singular causation an appropriate fit for this purpose.

Instead, Windelband’s suggestion that there is a connection between a focus on individuals rather than generalities and what is of value suggests a distinct response. On this suggestion, idiographic inquiry does not have a different form of intelligibility of its subject matter but rather has a particular kind of interest in it. It is an interest in the individual as such. This helps sidestep a worry about how to generalise small scale qualitative research and to avoid an epistemic bias of ‘looking away’: prematurely looking away from the individual to generalities. It is in such differences, rather than the form of judgement taken, that the difference between idiographic and nomothetic lies.


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