Monday, August 19, 2019

Linda A.W. Brakel on the epistemic and ontological priority of (conscious and unconscious) knowledge over beliefs (‘neurotic’ and otherwise)

Brakel book
“That there can be unconscious knowledge at all and the recognition of the great importance of unconscious knowing in mental life, together constitute one of the most basic assumptions of psychoanalytic theory. However, from the philosophical viewpoint most modern epistemologists [and most contemporary work in philosophy of mind] have contended that belief, rather than knowledge, is the most fundamental mental attitude.” In Unconscious Knowing and Other Essays in Psycho-Philosophical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2010), Linda A.W. Brakel discusses and analyzes the epistemic and ontological priority given to notions of true belief, in particular “justified true belief,” hence the dominant philosophical view in which knowledge is explained in terms of belief, belief being “maintained as the foundational attitude, conceptually prior to knowledge.” 

Invoking in part the philosopher Timothy Williamson’s Knowledge and Its Limits (Oxford University Press, 2000), Brakel argues for a “radical epistemic view,” namely, that knowledge “comes first, conceptually and ontologically, with belief dependent on knowledge.” She draws upon data from psychoanalysis (e.g., ‘negative hallucinations,’ the role of ‘neurotic beliefs’ interfering with patients’ evidential use of knowledge, and ‘dream drawing’) as well as experimental research in cognitive neuropsychology to support her strictly philosophical arguments which serve to bolster or re-affirm the psychoanalytic theory or model of mind and which, in turn, is critical to therapeutic methods and processes of psychoanalysis.

I won’t attempt here to summarize her arguments for this radical epistemic view, which constitute only one—the second—chapter of her brilliant book. The other chapters treat, with equal analytic sophistication and keen insight, “a-rationality and vagueness;” “agency” and philosophy of action; the placebo effect; and explanations in the philosophy of science as these bear upon psychoanalysis in particular. Rather, I first want to share a clinical vignette on “neurotic beliefs” and phantasy, followed by a substantive and extremely helpful footnote from the same chapter on unconscious knowing, for it provides a succinct conceptual backdrop for the larger argument and thus directly bears upon the psychoanalytic evidence she gathers together on behalf of the endeavor to displace (justified true) belief with knowledge as the foundational epistemic attitude (and thus conceptually prior to belief, that is, the converse of the prevailing view in philosophy). 

“The phenomenon of neurotic-belief demonstrates [yet] another way in which one can know without believing what one knows. Most neurotic persons (and patients) have central phantasies, which are treated as beliefs, and have some of beliefs’ causal and functional roles—this despite the important fact that unlike beliefs, neurotic beliefs do not aim at the truth and are not regulated by evidence. Take, for instance, Mr. R who was brutally beaten many times by his father as a child. Now a very successful business man, middle aged and homosexual, he behaves in ways seemingly designed to never attract any man, even as he longs for sex, marriage, and male companionship. Through work in analysis, Mr. R first came to see that his characteristic overly dramatic style alternating with cool indifference was not likely to attract any of the men he was interested in attracting. We then began to understand the purpose of these behaviors. Over the decades, he had developed a complex phantasy (partly unconscious, and partly conscious but irrational) that worked to explain his past problems and prevent future ones. The phantasy as we constructed it looked like this: Mr. R neurotically-believed that his father’s damaging acts had been largely caused by his own lively (and very normal) little boy activities directed toward his father. So he neurotically-believed that as long as he was the opposite of normal—either too histrionic or too cold—not only would this sort of thing never happen again, it would also undo the past. Now Mr. R was not a psychotic person; he was competent and sophisticated and functioned well in the world. Clearly he knew that his father’s sadistic physically damaging behavior owed mostly to his father’s serious psychopathology and moral turpitude. He knew that behaving either with outrageous flamboyance or with cold self-containment could not guarantee future safety. Further, of course, he knew that the present cannot effect the past. Despite this, his neurotic-belief interfered with his rational capacities to believe what he knew. Mr. R had knowledge without believing what he knew.”
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As Brakel explains, the purpose of the unusually long footnote below is to illustrate the following epistemic phenomena: “(a) justified true beliefs that seem to constitute knowledge, (b) justified true beliefs that do not constitute knowledge (Gettier-like cases [if you are not familiar with this, see here or here]), (c) unjustified true beliefs, and (d) justified false beliefs. To begin with, take the following five facts as true: (1) It is Friday evening at 5 pm. (2) Our front doorbell is broken. (3) Vic, a punctual visitor at 5 pm each day, arrives on this particular Friday at 5 pm and presses the broken doorbell, but does not knock on the door. 4) Meanwhile, at 5 pm I hear what sounds to be a knock on the door. 5) Also, there has been a strong wind blowing intermittently for hours, and at 5 pm a medium-sized tree branch hits our front door just as Vic is ‘ringing’ the broken doorbell. 

So with these in mind, here is (a) an example of a simple justified true belief that seems consistent with knowledge: I have the justified true belief/knowledge that since the doorbell does not work, some other sound (like a knock) will be needed to signal a visitor’s presence. Now, for (b) a Gettier-like case, where justified true beliefs do not constitute knowledge: On the basis of the ‘knock’ sound at 5 pm, I believed that someone is at the door, especially as I am expecting Vic. Although this was a justified and true belief—justified as it is rational to think that when doorbells are broken people will knock to signal their arrival, and that knocking makes the type of knock-sound I heard; and true in that Vic truly was at the door at 5 pm—still, I cannot be said to have had knowledge of Vic being at the door at 5 pm, because the appropriate causal chain did not figure into my justified true belief. I believed Vic was at the door due to what turns out to have been the false belief that Vic had knocked on the door when really the ‘knock’ was the sound of the branch banging against the door. (c) An unjustified true belief is as follows: My husband, Art, was daydreaming at 5 pm that someone was at the door. On this a-rational basis he believed that someone was at the door. Since there was a visitor at 5 pm—this turned out to be a true belief. However, this belief was true only by accident; Art arrived at it without sufficiently justifiable reasons. Finally, to illustrate (d) a justified false belief, let us change one of the facts above. It is still Friday at 5 pm, but Vic does not arrive until 5:30 pm. At 5 pm when I heard the knocking sound, expecting Vic at 5 pm, I had the justified belief that it was Vic. As in the Gettier-like case above (example b), the knocking sound was really the branch hitting the door; but this time Vic was not yet present. My belief that it was someone at the door was equally justified, but under these circumstances it was false.”


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