Transcript: 274. Susan Brower-Toland on Ockham's Philosophy of Mind

An interview with Susan Brower-Toland covering Ockham's views on cognition, consciousness, and memory.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We are going to be talking about Ockham's Philosophy of Mind, something that's been discussed quite a lot in literature on him, including things you've written. And I think maybe the most basic question in the philosophy of mind is 'what does it mean to grasp something with the mind at all?' Because that will tell us something about what he thinks the mind is. So let's say I'm looking at you right now, what does he think is happening?

Susan Brower-Toland: So to get a sense for what it is for the mind to grasp something, you'd have to probably begin with his distinction between intuitive and abstractive cognition. So if you are grasping a particular object immediately in front of you, that's going to require appeal to his notion of intuitive cognition. So that might be the place to start.

Peter Adamson: Okay. So what's the difference between intuitive and abstractive cognition?

Susan Brower-Toland: Well, Ockham actually has a kind of technical way of marking this distinction, but we could get a handle on it as just a first approximation by just thinking of intuitive cognition along the lines of our own, maybe more pre-theoretic notion of perception. So essentially, intuitive cognition is the kind of cognition by which we just have direct access to gain information about objects in our immediate environment. It's that kind of cognition by which we can immediately form true contingent beliefs about sort of how things stand right here and right now. So that's the basic idea. The way Ockham himself likes to mark this distinction is by identifying intuitive cognition in terms of the role, the kind of functional role it plays vis-a-vis judgments about local, present, contingent matters of fact. So here's the role it plays. It's actually a twofold role. One is a psychological role. So what he'll say is an intuitive cognition of some object is such that it will immediately, that is automatically, give rise to judgments about that object. So if I have an intuitive cognition of you, I will on the basis of that intuition just immediately form a host of judgments: Peter exists. Peter is to the left of me. Peter is pale today, whatever the case may be. So intuitive cognition plays that kind of psychological role in occasioning or causing immediately certain judgments, particularly about existence and about the contingent attributes of the object intuitively cognized. And then the second role that he uses to identify intuitive cognitions is a broadly epistemic role. So he'll say that intuitive cognition of some object is such that it immediately or non-inferentially justifies the judgments that are formed on the basis of it. And so in fact, he thinks that the judgments or the beliefs formed on the basis of intuition have a kind of privileged epistemic status. They are immediately justified by that intuition. And he'll signal this by talking about the judgments as evident or constituting evident knowledge. So that's basically how he thinks of intuitive cognition. And then abstractive cognition is just any state that doesn't play that twofold role in judgment.

Peter Adamson: Okay. So an intuitive cognition would be something like: you're looking at me and you see that I'm bald. Thanks for not using that as an example. You see that I'm bald and you have a kind of certainty that I'm bald, which just is immediately justified. I mean, your belief that I'm bald is immediately justified by your intuition that I'm bald.

Susan Brower-Toland: Right. I mean, you could even think of Ockham is starting from this assumption or observation. We just seem to sort of possess knowledge about what's going on around us - what and how things are right here and right now. And then intuitive cognition is the mechanism that explains how we have such knowledge.

Peter Adamson: It seems like if that's the kind of basis for all of our judgments, there is something missing, though, namely all the things that are missing, because there's lots of things that don't exist. The example I always use in the podcast is my non-existent sister. And actually, I think I know some things about my non-existent sister, for example, that if she existed, she'd be female and that if she existed, she would be a child of my parents. Does he have anything to say about the judgments we make about non-existing things?

Susan Brower-Toland: Well, so there's a couple of things to say there. Interestingly, in almost every occasion in which he offers a definition of intuitive and abstractive cognition or where he's marking that distinction, he'll say intuitive cognition is that cognition by which we judge that things exist or don't exist. So there is some question about what's going on in that second clause. He doesn't often talk about the case where you're judging something doesn't exist or you form a judgment about your non-existent sister. I'd be inclined to say that in the natural case, that would be inferential. So there you have all these judgments that are immediately occasioned by what is immediately around you. And you could probably infer from that. 'There is not-my sister' or 'there is not-such and such.' Yeah, but I think that certainly on his view that would not be a case of your intuitively cognizing your non-existent sister. It would be your intuitively cognizing all the things that exist, judging that they exist, what they're like, how they're situated - and then you could probably infer from all that. 'No sister.' But that's to say what might be going on in the natural case. Ockham does think that we could have intuitive cognitions of non-existence, and that won't ever happen in the natural case. That requires a miracle - but such miracles could occur. So God could supernaturally intervene and cause you to have an intuitive cognition of something that doesn't exist.

Peter Adamson: What would that be like?

Susan Brower-Toland: Well, I think his ideas, well - let's not take your non-existent sister. So let's take something that we know what it's like. So when you perceive a cup, you have a coffee cup in front of you, we know what that's like to perceive a cup. Suppose you don't - there is no cup in front of you - but God miraculously intervenes to cause an intuitive cognition of a cup. And you say, what would that be like? Well, Ockham would say, 'it's just like if the cup were there.' That's sort of what's a bit bizarre about his allowing this. The idea is that God can bring about directly anything he can bring about through secondary causes. So if the cup can bring about an intuitive cognition in you, God can bring about that very state.

Peter Adamson: That's actually really worrisome because now couldn't a skeptic come along and say, well, how do I know God isn't just giving me all of my intuitive cognitions? I mean, it's basically Descartes' evil demon, right?

Susan Brower-Toland: Yes. And it does not take very long at all for that precise question to emerge. And Ockham, interestingly - and it gets more bizarre because what he wants to say is 'in the case where God is intervening to cause an intuitive cognition of a non-existent cup, you don't form a false judgment that the cup exists.' In that case, you judge that the cup doesn't exist. So that's what's bizarre about what he's saying here because Ockham's essentially saying that God can bring about in us the very same state that in the normal course of things would be brought about by the cup. Except in the case where God brings about that state, the state causes not the erroneous judgment that the cup exists. Now in that case, you will form a true judgment that the cup doesn't exist.

Peter Adamson: And that's because God wouldn't deceive me?

Susan Brower-Toland: Not using intuitive cognition. Ockham certainly thinks God can deceive us. If God wanted to deceive us, he could just directly cause in you a judgment that the cup exists when it doesn't. I mean, he's certainly willing to allow that God could deceive us. For some reason, he is not willing to allow that God could deceive you using an intuitive cognition. There's this link between intuitive cognition and true judgments.

Peter Adamson: So this is like what you said before, that they immediately justify judgments and they're certain. So basically his idea is that if God gave me an intuitive cognition of a non-existing cup, what I would think is, 'ah, it's a non-existing cup.' Even though it would be just like seeing a cup. That's very strange.

Susan Brower-Toland: That is, it is very strange. And it's implausible. I mean, and it was recognized as such by his immediate successors. So Chatton comes along and just says what you would expect somebody to say. Of course, God could cause in you an intuitive cognition of something that doesn't exist. But if he does that, you're going to form the false judgment that the thing exists. Again, Wodeham - both of these are younger Franciscan contemporaries. Adam Wodeham essentially embraces the skeptical consequences that you were gesturing at just a bit earlier. So he says he follows Chatton: God would cause in us this intuitive cognition of a non-existent. We would form a false belief. And then he basically goes on to say, 'yeah, and so we can't ever know on the basis of perception what exists because for any intuitive state we don't know whether God's causing it or whether the object is.' So it does pretty quickly get to skeptical worries. And I don't know that we have a good answer about why Ockham takes the position he does, but one natural thought is that he sees the skeptical implications of allowing that intuitive cognition can lead to false judgments that would sort of undermine its ability to justify beliefs about, based on it.

Peter Adamson: Right. So effectively what we're seeing here is an anticipation of this later development of seeing how difficult it will be to found all of our knowledge in these indubitable first judgments. Let's move on to, or inside, maybe further inside the mind to something which might more be described as his theory of consciousness. And what I mean by that is the judgments that we make about judgments. Because it's not only that I can think, 'here's a cup.' I can also think something like 'I'm seeing a cup.' In other words, I can be aware that I'm having an intuitive cognitive experience. Does he think that my awareness of an intuitive cognition is itself also an intuitive cognition?

Susan Brower-Toland: That's right. So his theory of intuitive cognition plays an important role - not only in our grasp of the external environment, but our grasp of our own states. So to say something about how the role that intuition plays and as a kind of self-knowledge, I just need to quickly add one slight complication to what I said earlier about intuitive and abstractive cognition, or just add something I haven't said so far. And that is, and this again is something different and controversial in Ockham's theory of intuitive cognition, but Ockham introduces intuitive cognition both at the level of senses and at the level of intellect. So as lots of your listeners are no doubt aware, medievals, following their ancient predecessors, distinguished between sensory and intellective cognition, where sensory cognition is just going to be the deliverance of the senses - whatever cognitive contribution you get from internal sense faculties. And then intellect is going to be responsible for things like concept formation, judgments, discursive reasoning, and for Ockham, controversially, intuitive cognition. So if you're thinking about intuitive cognition along the lines I suggested earlier as akin to perception, it's very odd to place it at the level of intellect. Most thinkers would keep it as something that goes on at the level of senses. Ockham essentially posits intuitive cognition both at senses and at intellect. So in the ordinary case, 'I'm perceiving you,' it'll start with a sensory intuition of you that will occasion an intellective intuition. It's the intellective intuition that then occasions or causes all those judgments. Now I'm pointing all this out for two reasons: One, because the introduction of intuitive cognition at intellect is controversial, but Ockham does it precisely because he thinks you won't be able to account for self-knowledge unless you do introduce intuitive cognition. And the way he arrives at this is just by reflecting on the domain and the phenomenology of self-knowledge. So among the states we seem to be aware of are our thoughts and our volitions. So we seem to have knowledge about our own mental or intellective states. And that knowledge seems to be immediate. It has some of these perception-like qualities. It's immediate and our knowledge also seems to be specially secure. And he basically just points out kind of by a process of elimination. You're not going to be able to secure these features of self-knowledge, its domain or its phenomenology, by appeal to senses, by appeal to inferential reasoning, by appeal to abstractive cognition. So most thinkers have only abstractive cognition at intellect. That's why he introduces intuition at the level of intellect. And it amounts to not only intuition at the level of intellect, but higher order or reflexive intuition. So just like you said, you can have a direct intuition of - I can be having a direct intuitive cognition of you, and then I'll have a higher order intuitive cognition of my intuition of you, in which case I will form judgments just in the way I do at the first order level: I'll form second order self-attributing judgments. There's a perception of Peter in me. I'm seeing Peter now, whatever the case may be. So essentially his account of self-knowledge is a higher order iteration of his first order theory of perception.

Peter Adamson: Does that happen automatically? I mean, if I suppose that you're looking at me and you have an intuitive cognition that I'm bald, and then in addition, you could have an intuitive cognition that you're seeing that I'm bald. And I can see that it's right that just as you couldn't be wrong that I'm bald because you're just seeing me and I'm bald. So also you couldn't be wrong about the fact that you're seeing someone who's bald. In other words, that you're having the experience of seeing a bald person. But on the other hand, it doesn't seem like we always have these second order judgments. It's not like we go through life seeing things and also constantly being aware that we're seeing things, being self-aware or knowing about ourselves that we're seeing. So does he think that that happens? The way that it's sort of inevitable that when you look at me, you'll always have intuitive cognitions of me?

Susan Brower-Toland: Yeah. I mean, so there are some complications here. Obviously, if he thought that for every mental state - every occurrence state, we were aware of that state, then he would be liable to infinite regress problems because then you'd have to be aware of your higher order intuitions.

Peter Adamson: I'd be aware that I'm aware. And aware that I'm aware that I'm aware.

Susan Brower-Toland: So people bring this objection against him and he's very aware of this objection. So he does have to work to try to limit the scope of what you're conscious of and he has different strategies for trying to do that sometimes. In lots of cases, it looks like it's going to be a matter of an appeal to attention or will or so. I can have all kinds of information coming in via intuitive cognition, but it could be I'm only paying attention to you and not all the books I see in the background or whatever. So some of it will be what you attend to. So if I'm attending to my perception of you, then that's what I'll have a higher order... or the higher order intuition will be a matter of my attending just to you. And then sometimes he'll also just appeal to the limits of the intellect. We just can't be aware of lots of things at once.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, fifth order cognition is pretty difficult.

Susan Brower-Toland: That's right. Or even many things. It's very hard for me to be aware of many things. It's not just limits in terms of higher order iterations, but also just the number of first order things I can be aware of at once. So I guess here's two ways I'm trying to answer your question. On the one hand, I think he does think that we are conscious of lots of our state. So this higher order intuition is just a way of bestowing consciousness on the first order state. So if I have a higher order intuition of my first order intuition of you, I'm just aware of seeing you. But all the judgments I form about you, like 'I'm seeing Peter,' I don't have a higher order cognition of those. So it's not like I'm conscious of all those judgments that I'm aware of thinking these things. So I'll just be aware of perceiving you. So on the one hand, it might be that consciousness will be more ubiquitous than perhaps we're inclined to think it is, but it's not going to, you know - there are definite limits on the scope of what we're conscious of.

Peter Adamson: So far, we've only been talking about what's happening right now, what he would say about that. So my judgment that I'm making right now that you're sitting in front of me, and then my ability to reflect on that in various ways. So to be aware that I'm seeing you, and maybe even to be aware that I'm aware that I'm seeing you. But what about the situation over time? Because tomorrow, I'll probably, I mean, my memory is reasonably good. I'll probably be able to remember having this conversation tomorrow. And you won't be there anymore. But I usually feel when I remember things like that, that I'm just as certain that I'm remembering them as I was when they were happening. Would he therefore say that I also have an intuitive, cognitive judgment about something that happened in the past, even though it's not happening anymore?

Susan Brower-Toland: He would say this much: your memory is rooted in prior higher order intuitions. So essentially, now that we've got his account of self knowledge out where it's easy to see what his account of memory is, two things: one, I mean, memory really broadly for him is just going to be your ability, a capacity to retain and represent information again that you've had before. But then there's a stricter notion of memory that I think you're interested in - he would call this memory strictly so-called, and that's the capacity to represent a past event as past. And he thinks that sort of memory you're remembering our tomorrow, you're remembering our conversation today, that's going to be your representing a past event as past. Interestingly, the reason this is a kind of self-knowledge is that for Ockham, he thinks memory in that strict sense is not just about you representing a past event as past, it's actually autobiographical in nature. So what you're doing in that case is actually representing your own past experiences. So the idea is essentially that during our conversation you are aware of what you're hearing and what you're seeing via higher order intuition. And in virtue of your awareness of what you're seeing and what you're hearing and what's currently going on, you are thereby disposed to remember that. And so for him, memory will just be like self-knowledge - it is self-knowledge, it's a type of self-knowledge, it's a higher order self attributing judgment. So tomorrow, when you reflect on our conversation, your capacity to reflect is rooted in your awareness - your awareness of what you're seeing and hearing today. And what you do tomorrow is a form of judgment like this: I remember hearing what Susan said yesterday, I remember seeing her wear her glasses, or something. So memory of that sort is essentially representing your own past mental states, that's just what memory is. And so it's rooted in intuition that way, because you can only remember - or higher order intuition, you're only going to be able to remember things that you were conscious of at the time. And then it takes the same structure of self-knowledge, a higher order self attributing judgment.

Peter Adamson: One thing that strikes me as surprising about that, at least against the background of the previous tradition, is that according to what you said earlier, these higher order judgments, like awareness, judgments of awareness, are all in the intellect. So what you just said implies that memory happens in the intellect, whereas most previous medieval thinkers and also Aristotle put memory in some lower faculty of the soul. Is he really serious about this? So he thinks we remember with our intellects?

Susan Brower-Toland: Yeah, he's serious about this. He can accommodate some of the older traditions because he's willing to recognize, as I hinted at earlier, memory in a bunch of different, broader notions of memory. So one's ability to revisit some content - that's a memory, broadly speaking. You're not necessarily representing it as past, but the ability to retrieve some representational content, that can be memory. And certainly animals can do that. That kind of thing can go on at the sensory level. But what he wants to call memory in the strict sense is purely intellective. So, that is, your right to observe - it's new.

Peter Adamson: So whenever I remember that I was having such and such an experience, I'm using my mind. Actually, but one advantage of that, I suppose, is that if like a lot of medieval thinkers, he believes that you lose all your psychological faculties after death, apart from your mind or your rational soul, you could still easily remember all the things you experienced with the senses just by virtue of the fact that your mind survived. You wouldn't need your brain, in other words.

Susan Brower-Toland: Right. Yes. In fact, the context in which Ockham gives one of his fullest accounts of the nature of memory is in the context of a discussion about whether the disembodied soul can remember its embodied states. And that's where you can find one of his most elaborate discussions of memory. And that discussion of memory is precisely in service of his affirmative answer to that question: Yes, the disembodied soul, the post-death, pre-resurrection soul can recall embodied experiences for just this reason.

Peter Adamson: Would it be going too far to say that this suggests that he's anticipating something like John Locke's theory of personal identity over time? Because Locke would say that I'm the same person from one day to the next because of a continuity of consciousness or awareness or mental states. And then he could say, 'well, that even carries on after death.'

Susan Brower-Toland: I actually think the order might be reversed. I think his account of memory presupposes the continuity of a subject. So essentially when you're forming a memory, you're forming a self-attributing judgment. I saw, say - Ockham's example he likes to use is this example of "John's lecture." So if after death I'm disposed to reflect on John's lecture, I'm going to form a judgment like this: 'I saw John lecture.' And what that, I think what it actually does is presuppose the enduring subject because on his view, the account of memory - I mean, basically his account of memory is presupposing a continuous existence of a single enduring self, right? The self that's the subject of the 'I' that's remembering. So it's the referent of the 'I' and the self-attributing judgment, but it's the same subject that was subject to the prior mental state thus remembered. So I think it's actually the reverse. His account of memory isn't giving you an enduring self. I think it's presupposing an enduring self, in particular the rational soul.

Peter Adamson: Okay. We've talked about several subsequent philosophers and also contemporaries like Chatton, for example - and leaving Descartes and Locke aside and focusing on the 14th century figures - so far, everyone you've mentioned is someone who was criticizing Ockham. Is that a representative sample? I mean, are Ockham's ideas in philosophy of mind ideas that were widely rejected or did they also find a lot of supporters?

Susan Brower-Toland: Well, I think it's a mixed bag. I also think that the evidence is still out, in a certain way. We've got a lot to learn about the 14th century. So I've spent a lot of time looking at Walter Chatton. So this is an immediate successor of Ockham. He's somebody who rejects - he's a critic. I mean, he rejects lots and lots of Ockham's conclusions. So as we've already seen, he rejects this idea of consciousness or self-knowledge being explained by higher order intuition. He rejects this idea that intuitive cognition of a non-existent would yield a true judgment. And this is just a start of all the things in Ockham, all the conclusions Ockham draws that Chatton rejects. On the other hand, he's enormously influenced by Ockham. He sort of takes on much of the apparatus that Ockham adopts. So Ockham describes thought as occurring in a language of thought and gives a fairly elaborate account of this. Chatton will adopt that whole framework and then reject particular conclusions. So I think even among people who reject some of Ockham's particular conclusions you see the influence. You see a tremendous influence anyway. You get people like Adam Wodeham, who's a fairly faithful and sympathetic reader. And he accepts lots - so he'll defend the higher order account of self-knowledge as higher order intuition or higher order perception, but he'll reject Ockham's conclusions about intuitive cognition. So I think there's no getting around how influential Ockham was, and his system, but it would be hard to say that anybody accepted all the conclusions or rejected all of them. 


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