Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Review - The Philosopher's Dog, by Rai Gaita

Saturday March 1, 2003
The Guardian

The Philosopher's Dog
by Raimond Gaita
224pp, Routledge, £14.99

What are minds, exactly? Most of us, when first confronted with this question, find ourselves quickly drawn to a traditional philosophical picture. The picture represents the mind as a sort of private room: a hidden inner sanctum within which our mental lives are played out and to which others are necessarily denied access.

Because these inner rooms are hermetically sealed off from each other, the only clue as to what's going on inside the mind of another must be provided by their outward behaviour.

Of course, this picture of the mind, once it gets a grip on our thinking, leads to all sorts of puzzles. If all I can have access to is the outward behaviour of other people, then how do I know that they have minds? How can I be sure that they aren't mindless zombies? And do animals have minds? If they do, then what are animal minds like? How does the world seem from inside the mind of a dog or a sparrow? What is it like to be a spider? Indeed, is there anything like being a spider [n.b. my original text said "it is like to be a spider". S.L.]? In his later philosophy, Wittgenstein rejects this picture of minds as essentially hidden, inner worlds. Minds, in Wittgenstein's view, are essentially public, not private. They are right there on the surface rather than buried away beneath. Nothing is hidden.

That might sound like a crude form of behaviourism: "So Wittgenstein is saying, then, that the mind just is behaviour, or, at least, that it consists in nothing more than certain behavioural dispositions?"

Well, no, he is not saying that either. It's possible, on occasion, to view human beings as mere physical objects, and their words as just sounds in the air (it's a pretty disturbing experience, of course, and one that, if we are not insane, is impossible for us to maintain for very long). When we switch back to seeing others not as physical objects but as beings with minds who make meaningful utterances, we are viewing them, as it were, in a different conceptual dimension, a dimension that, according to Wittgenstein, cannot be reduced to or understood in terms of the merely physical.

In his enjoyable and rather beautiful book, The Philosopher's Dog, Raimond Gaita takes these two Wittgensteinian ideas - that the mind is essentially public, not essentially private, and that mind and meaning are irreducible -and develops them with great sensitivity.

Gaita's focus is on our relationship with animals and the rest of the natural world. His project is not to reveal new, previously hidden facts about humans and animals, but rather to get us to see more clearly what was always right under our noses.

"Nothing is hidden," writes Gaita. "The capacity to see depends on having a rich conception of the surface, a rich conception of what it is to be a living thing and therefore how to describe what it does and what it suffers." His book aims to leave us with a deeper understanding both of what it is to be an animal and of what it is to be human.

Gaita constructs the book in large part around a number of animal stories taken from the author's own life. He is quite right to insist on "the distinctive role storytelling can play in showing us how we can apply to animals concepts that we had previously thought had no application to them." The stories are often deeply touching, without being sentimental, and their atmospheres left me haunted for days afterwards. And Gaita is quite correct: his stories really are philosophically illuminating.

Naturally, not everyone is going to agree with the book's two key Wittgensteinian ideas. In particular, many will find the view that mind and meaning reside wholly on the "surface" somewhat dubious. In his seminal paper, "What is it like to be a bat?", the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously suggested that the intrinsic character of a bat's subjective experience as it "sees" using sound is something that is in principle impossible for us to know. No amount of investigation into a bat's behaviour or nervous system can tell us what it is like for the bat, as it were. There does seem to be something essentially private and hidden about a bat's mind.

Personally, I have a great deal of sympathy with Gaita's "surface" approach, but I'm left with the nagging worry that he does after all miss something out - the essentially private character of conscious experience. While reading about Gaita's dog, I couldn't help thinking of Nagel's bat. I kept finding myself drawn back to the picture of the private room. But then perhaps I'm just confused. Either way, Gaita's charming book remains genuinely illuminating.

4 comments:

Timmo said...

Stephen,

Actually, Wittgenstein never says that minds are "essentially public". Take a look at Wittgenstein's Notes for the 'Philosophical Lecture', where Wittgenstein distinguishes between privacy and superprivacy. (Compare with Philosophical Investigations S. 97) Wittgenstein explains,

Privacy of feelings can mean: nobody can know them unless I show them, or: I can't really show them. Or: if I don't want to, I needn't give any sign of my feeling but even if I want to I can only show a sign and not the feeling.

What makes our feelings and thoughts private, then, is that nobody can know about them unless we report them. This is different from superprivacy, where there is no way to tell others about our feelings at all! The trap Wittgenstein is teaching us to avoid is the transmutation of privacy into superprivacy. Does that make Wittgenstein's take on the matter more palpable?

Stephen Law said...

Hi Timmo - by saying W's view is that minds are "essentially public" and not "essentially private" I mean he thinks everything going on "in" ones mind *can* be made public (though of course, as a matter of fact, it need not be made public).

Of course Nagal's bat example apparently shows that the bat's mind is not just private, but essentially private or, if you like, "superprivate".

Timmo said...

Stephen,

Thanks for your clarification. I see now that you did not intend to say Wittgenstein denied there was anything private about our mental lives.

Despite the prominence of Nagel's paper "What is it like to be a bat?", I do not think his examples show what he supposes they do. I worry that he stretches 'what is it like' beyond recognition.

For example, consider the question "What is it like to climb a mountain?" Giving an answer, of course, would require talking about what one does in climbing a mountain, what it feels like to do it, and what kinds of things one sees, smells, and the like. Or, better: "What is it like to be a graduate student?" I can tell you what it is like by describing the things that graduate students do (e.g. spend long hours studying difficult material), and how they feel (e.g. frustration, anticipation). One can perhaps go further and ask "What is it like to be human?" in which case the (perhaps rather philosophical) answer would consist of describing human life and the existential conditions of human beings.

Notice, however, none of this involves qualia or metaphysically insulated properties that mental states and processes uniquely possess. So, I suspect Nagel is just confused about what his question 'What is it like to be a bat?' really means.

کشاورزی said...

Dear Stephan,
I am an Iranian reader of Prof. Gaita's book the Philosopher's Dog. As you better know, the complexity of philosophical texts by itself and language barrier, on the other hand, make reading philosophy in other languages somewhat difficult. I have reached this chapter Sitting on her mat... and cannot make a connection between Wittgenstein and Gaita's idea on the process of certainty of the existence of other minds. I will be grateful if you explain to me the matter and my next questions for the sake of knowledge. You can send your reply to my email address eastern0002@gmail.com
I appreciate your consideration in advance.
Regards,
Keshavarzi from Iran