Lecture Notes on Expressivism and Sensibility

S. Blackburn, “How to Be an Ethical Antirealist” (1993)
1. The Proposal
(a) Ethical thinking is not in the business of cognition. The priority goes to non-cognitive
attitudes. This means: i. to attitudes, mental states, rather than contents: objects, properties,
propositions; ii. To non cognitive attitudes rather than cognitive ones: with the active and not
descriptive direction of fit. The attitudes are projected – a mental activity – as properties (attitudes
to contents projected as properties of objects individuated by contents) and are expressed – a
linguistic activity – as predicates. The overall position combines projective metaphysics and a
quasi-realist understanding of normative thought (48)
(b) The program is basically that of avoiding cognitive attitudes as the starting point but
earning the right to talk of truth and cognition. It is not important how you start but what you finish
with (legitimately) saying (48). Furthermore, one has to provide an explanation, in functional and
evolutionary terms, of the relevant attitudes and of the projective and expressive activity (48-49)
(c) Values and norms do not play any independent explanatory role. In so far as mention of
them is made in the account, it is only as features of mental states, not as properties or facts in the
world (49, 52-53)
2. Philosophical Notabilia
(a) There is no transcendental story to be told about normative discourse. This means that, in
contrast with fundamental science, physics, we can tell an explanatory story about ethics and
normative discourse without leaving the standpoint of naturalism and moving to a transcendental
one (47-48, 52-53)
(b) A thoroughly internal reading could and should be given of some of the basic
epistemological, semantic and metaphysical issues concerning normative thought: the issues of
dependency and objectivity; relativism; the definition of a truth predicate; the understanding of
normative reality. These are all questions which should be shifted to the first order, taken as
substantive normative questions, questions about what is moral and what is rational, what is to do
(51, 52, 53, 55)
(c) The understanding of normative predicates is thoroughly non-naturalistic: they do not
stand for natural or metaphysical properties; they do not stand for anything at all; they are
projections and expressions of attitudes and mark normative, not descriptive, differences. The
relevant sort of naturalism is subject-naturalism, or methodological naturalism, not object
naturalism (55).
A. Gibbard, “The Reasons of a Living Being” (2003)
1. Moore’s Open Question Argument is a good model for the kind of position that
expressivists should aim to. It is all-important for expressivism to recognize not only the
distinctiveness, but the irreducibility of normative considerations, dealing with oughts and reasons.
The ambition is to find a place for the space of reasons within the naturalistic picture of the world
2. This can be perfectly consistent with naturalism, if ought and reasons are understood and
explained expressivistically. Here the relevant contrast is between saying and expressing. Saying is
delivering a proposition, that is, a truth-apt content. Expressiving is manifesting an attitude, a
mental state, which can or not be cognitive. The crucial point is that there can be disagreement
between attitudes and subjects of attitudes, so that my attitude and your or my present attitude and
my past one are opposed as inconsistent (73, left column).
3. The mental states that are expressed in normative discourse are states of planning:
hypothetical contingency planning. Planning connects factual considerations – contingencies, causal
links – and normative-practical ones – what to want, what do. In either regard, plans are mental
states which license disagreement (tastes, famously, do not: de gustibus non disputandum) (74).
4. Disagreement in plans makes possible to think of mental states, as candidates for
expression or projection, to exclude one another. This is important because contents can be
individuated in terms of exclusions. The content of a belief, say, is determined by what would made
that belief false. If there are exclusion-relations, or disagreements, between plans, then, since plans
are not purely factual mental states, there may be a way to individuate and explain normative
contents and to solve the Frege-Geach problem and other issues of normative rationality (74-75).
5. This also establishes a measure of moral realism and can lead to an ecumenical position in
metaethics – of course, strictly on expressivist grounds (75, left colum).
6. It is important to distinguish concepts and properties. There are non-naturalist, normative
concepts; but not non-naturalistic, normative properties. In general, the central issues of the
metaphysics of normativity, including the explanation of the supervenience of the normative on the
natural, are explained in terms of idealizing constraints on planning activity. Therefore, are
explanations of an expressivist, internal sort (75, right column, 76).
III. J. McDowell, “Values and Secondary Qualities” (1985)
1. The Basic Claims
(a) There is a cognivist phenomenology of value: our view and our understanding of values
seem to be those proper to any cognitive presentation. This was Mackie’s starting point, also. But
Mackie complemented this right phenomenological point with an unacceptable model for the
cognition of values. The model is a perceptual one – and this per se could be inoffensive; but is is
one referring to the perception of primary qualities. This combines the simple being there of such
qualities with their having an intrinsic, non-subjectively mediate impact on attitudes. This raises
deep and insoluble metaphysical questions and opens the way to the projectivist alternative to error
theory. But there can be an alternative: modeling values on secondary qualities and rejecting
projectivism in favor of a revised understanding of cognitivist realism (137-138).
(b) Notice that the above implies that the account of secondary qualities is not a projective
one; but that it is in turn cognitivist and realist – in its own distinctive way. In this regard, it is
utterly important that the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is not mistaken for
one between objective and subjective or one between veridicality and illusion, being there and
figment. Secondary qualities are inherently phenomenal: essentially present to experience and
essentially marked by their appearing to experience. But they still are perfectly realand objective
2. Philosophical Points
(a) The crucial step in this direction is to drop the idea that experience, the states of
awareness which we are in when perceiving or seeming to perceive sensibly, is the medium or
bearer of the content of experience. If we assume this, then it is difficult to resist the idea that there
is an uneliminable subjectivity in experience, that is in our cognition of secondary qualities,
because, no matter what else, they must only be what is given in subjective awareness. The right
understanding of the situation is that experience, or sensible awareness, is immediately
representative. The colors and so on we have experience of are not the subjective shell of some
information about the environment. They are phenomenal properties of the objects, different but not
less real than the non-phenomenal ones. The grounds for this position are those hinted to in 1.b:
there is no a priori difference in veridicality between primary and secondary qualities. They differ
only in character, not in their claim to objectivity (139-140, 141).
(b) This approach can be extended to values. They have no causal efficacy, but still, like
colors, they can be genuine aspects of reality. In either case, the phenomenality of colors or the
special place in awareness, say, in motivating terms, of values, is the expression of their special
connection with mind and sensibility. This is not in the sense that they belong in any particular
sense to subjectivity; but that they can be individuated and understood only in relation to the
sensibility and the attitudes of persons. But still, this relation is not illusory and is objective:
something can be really fearful, in relation to the response or attitude of fear. There is a disanalogy
with colors: values do not only elicit but merit certain attitudes or responses. There is room for
criticism and room for discussing the appropriateness of objects and attitudes (141-142)
(c) All the explanations, the criticisms, the corrections, the improvement, must be
understood from the standpoint of the relevant attitudes and of our engagement with certain sorts of
judgments and evaluations and actions. Once this is understood, there are no epistemological
mysteries concerning our grasp and knowledge of values – no more than that of colors, given that
we are by nature endued of visual perception and of a sensibility to color. There is an internal
connection between our sensible or practical constitution and the features of the world we have
access to, the objective modes of presentations of reality (142-143).
IV. D. Wiggins, “A Sensible Subjectivism” (1991)
1. There is a Humean form of subjectivism, which hinges on projection and on the verdict of
authoritative judges. However, this form of subjectivism is questionable because it is modeled on
the sensorial apparatus and presupposes a homogeneous human nature (147-148)
2. A non-Humean subjectivism: the central concept is that of fitness by nature of certain
views and ways of acting. The viewpoint from which such fitnesses are to be recognized and
appreciated is internal to our practice of cognition and evaluation, it is a first-order one. There is no
reduction of valuing and values to anything external (149-150).
3. Perceptions and responses, properties and responses, are on this view mutually
determined – made the ones for the others. The crucial point is that our sensibilities and our
practices are at least to some degree systematic and susceptible to progress. We can move from
consideration of appropriate objects to that of appropriate responses and again to that of appropriate
objects- it is a virtuous circularity. This also makes disagreement possible and makes us move from
subjectivity to objectivity. (151-152)
4. We must both require and pursue agreement ion concepts or sense, not judgments, in our
practices. This is the key to our mutual criticizability and to the internal criticism and
reconstructions of our very practices – on the model of Neurath’s ship. In this way it is possible to
aim to a form of realist and cognitivist subjectivism (153-155).