The Quine/Skinner discussion.

In 1981 B.F. Skinner held a series of small seminars with his colleagues to discuss a variety of different philosophical and scientific topics. In one of the seminars behaviourist philosopher Willard Quine was a guest. Other members of the discussion that day were the linguist Pere Julia, as well as another unidentified male guest (perhaps Gerald Zuriff who attended most of these discussions), Margret Vaughan and Will Vaughan were present as was the Swedish linguist and poet Lars Gutafson.
The discussion begins with an analysis of motivation, reasons and causes. One of the central themes is Skinner’s distinction between rule-governed behaviour and contingency shaped behaviour. Skinner first made this distinction in his 1967 book ‘Contingencies of Reinforcement’:
“Society codifies its ethical, religious, and legal practices so that by following a code the individual may emit behaviour appropriate to social contingencies without having been directly exposed to them. Scientific laws play a similar role in guiding the life of scientists…Discriminative stimuli which improve the efficiency of behaviour under given contingencies of reinforcement are important, but they must not be confused with the contingencies themselves, nor with the effects of those contingencies…The behaviour of one who speaks correctly by applying the rules of grammar merely resembles the one who speaks correctly from long experience in his verbal community.” ( Contingencies of Reinforcement. p. 125)
Skinner discussed the matter further in his (1974) ‘About Behaviourism’:
“To say that “The child who learns a language has in some sense constructed a grammar for himself” is as misleading as to say that a dog which has learned to catch a ball has in some sense constructed the relevant part of the science of mechanics. Rules can be abstracted from the reinforcing contingencies in both cases, and once in existence may be used as guides. The direct effect of the contingencies is of a different nature…There are then two extremes: (1) Behaviour shaped only by the contingencies of reinforcement, in which case we respond “unconsciously”, and (2) rule governed behaviour in which the contingencies from which these rules are derived may not have affected us directly. Between these extremes lie a wide range of degrees of “awareness”. (ibid pp 126-128)
We can see from above the importance Skinner made of the distinction of behaviour governed by explicit rules codified in language and behaviour caused by the contingencies of reinforcement. From at least 1967 Skinner was making a clear distinction between a person’s behaviour fitting rules, and people’s behaviour being guided by rules. Quine made a similar distinction explicit 5 years later in his paper ‘Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory ’:
“My distinction between fitting and guiding is, you see, the obvious and flat-footed one. Fitting is a matter of true description; guiding is a matter of cause and effect. Behaviour fits a rule whenever it conforms to it; whenever the rule truly describes the behaviour. But the behaviour is not guided by the rule unless the behaver knows the rule and can state it. This behaver observes the rule” (Quine: Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory’ p. 386).
So at the time of the discussion both Skinner and Quine both were very concerned with accounting for the distinction between rule-governed behaviour and behaviour that was entirely causal. Below is the audio recording of the discussion

Below is a transcript from the first 15 minutes of the conversation ( which should be read while listening to the audio recording) where they discuss reasons, causation and motivation. The rest of the conversation hasn’t been archived I will archive it at some later stage and post it here.

Pere Julia discussion group:
First section: An analysis of Reasons, Causes and Motivation:
Quine: That’s what I meant by reference to drive. There will still be something in the way of motivation…maybe that’s true of all caused behaviour.
Julia: You did it. And you may verbalise the wrong reasons. I did it for such and such a reason but as the Freudian would say you did it for very different reasons.
Skinner: That was Freud’s little …he would indicate different reasons for doing something than the reasons you gave. But the reasons he would have given…If they are unconscious reasons, then they must be what I have been calling causes and not reasons because they are not verbal.
Julia: So you have causes on the one hand which would be a list of the variables that lead to the behaviour. Now you might describe these causes and then you would be giving reasons for having done it. But these reasons may not be the real causes. So we would have an intersection of two sets but they are not necessarily the same set.
Skinner: When you were young you were reinforced in many ways in the presence of your mothers face. Then you grow up and you fall in love with a woman who looks like your mother looked at that time. That’s all a matter of cause in the sense that it’s just a behavioural process. But you give reasons why you find her beautiful. Then Freud turns up and says aha you overlooked the fact that she looked like your mother when you were a child. So that the contingencies, the unanalysed, un-rationalized contingencies, were simply the fact that that person is attracted to her and that is where motivation comes in, whether the mother was feeding you caressing you and so on, and you go for that kind of person, and you go for this woman. But then you give a lot of other reasons, she is very intellectual, you enjoy talking to her, and so on. You give all sorts of reasons, which as Freud would point out are not the real reason you married her. You married for unconscious reasons, and the fact that it is unconscious means that you haven’t talked about it, and couldn’t talk about it, without converting it into reason governed behaviour. The real reason you married her was because she looked like your mother and as soon as you say that it is now a description of the contingencies.
Quine: Is this only difference? Would you say that reasons are causes verbalised by the subject himself? And when we say causes we mean real causes, and these aren’t kidding himself.
Skinner: These are behavioural processes unwinding, that is what we mean by cause.
Quine: So reasons would be separated, the way that the notion of cause separates reasons from false rationalisations. False rationalisations and reasons have in common that they are verbalised, but reasons are distinguished from the false rationalisations in that they really causes as well…so all reasons are causes.
Skinner: It’s very important that you don’t get people to do anything by giving a reason. That doesn’t have what you would call a motivation. That is why you advise someone in therapy. Let’s say he is a pathological gambler you can say “you should give up gambling and that is a good reason. If you give up gambling you won’t lose money”. But that doesn’t mean that he is going to take that knowledge and act on it and stop.
Quine: That’s saying that they are verbalised by the subject, not the advisor but by the subject himself.
Skinner: Well the reasons could be imparted. When you tell some one, when you give someone reasons to do things. You are hoping to change the behaviour by giving the reason. But unless there is some reason to follow the reason, unless there is a cause there, that would be “you do this or else” it could be that kind of cause. You describe the behaviour, if you can threaten a person will do it, if you can say and they have news for you, that would be a way of getting them to do it because in the past when people have said things you tend to do things and so on. But a mere statements of contingencies may not be enough.
Quine: Well now try this one. A reason is a verbalised cause (the verbalisation may be through someone else) such that the subject accepts the verbalisation and is aware that it is the cause. Of course the trouble here is that awareness comes in.
Skinner: Then knows what will happen if. But that does not mean that there is any disposition to do it. That is where the motivational side is missing.
Julia: I think that Professor Quine said the key phrase before and that is when subject is speaking about himself and is not kidding himself reasons and causes would appear to be the same thing even if he is listing and describing the causes whereby he is doing something. And if he is indeed not kidding himself then the two things would be the same. Then we have to talk about the case of somebody falling in love with someone who resembles his mother. He may not be aware of it, then the causes would be a broader set of things than the reasons he gives he would give for his having falling in love with; they may not coincide. So the question is whether he is kidding himself or not, whether he knows himself or not. On the one hand so far as the speaker is speaking about himself, and when we knew some of the ultimate, we can give good reasons, we can describe the contingencies he is following but that doesn’t mean we will be effective.
Quine: If they are effective then there reasons again.
Person B: Ordinarily when a person gives a reason there is a step missing to get from that reason to what we consider to be the cause, you still have take what the person says and do some kind of translation or something to get to the independent variables. Rarely when a person is giving reasons would he state what a scientist would accept as independent variables.
Julia: Well paraphrasing it into technical language.
Person B: Is that always possible?
Julia: If he is not kidding himself, he has given the reason, so long as it satisfies our translation.
Person B: Ok. Now do valid reasons when you are not kidding yourself always translate into a scientific analysis.
Julia: Do you have an example?
Person B: Well when people give purposes when people explain why they do it because of wants, desires, plans, thought and so on. We don’t know that all that can be translated, first of all because we don’t have a complete science, and secondly because nobody has done this.
Julia: Well you would have to review case by case. Maybe we would run into examples which would defy translation.
Person B: It would be odd if people just intuitively know what is going to turn out to be the scientific explanation for why they behave as they do.
Julia: No but very often people do describe the reasons why they do things simply because in the past they have been trained to observe their own behaviour in relation to causes and why did you do it, to whom did you speak. That is where self descriptive repertoire come in.
Person B: Are we saying that contingency shaped behaviour where no rules are involved. Now that behaviour can also have reasons.
Skinner: You can extract them from the contingencies.
Person B: And the person in fact himself after having done the behaviour can give a reason even though the behaviour may have been contingency shaped.
Skinner: Yes and he may continue to use a statement about the contingencies in order to keep himself going.
Person B: Then it becomes rule governed.
Skinner: I use an old example of a medieval blacksmith who discovers how to use the bellows. The bellows are near the fire and he himself discovers just by the contingencies that you may as well go up quickly as there is no air coming out as you are doing that and you don’t down to too fast in order to get a steady flow of air. Then he makes a little poem “Up high down low, up quick and down slow that’s the way to blow”. But then he tells the apprentice the poem. The apprentice is only following the rules; he is doing what he was told to do. The blacksmith is doing it first of all because the fire blows well when he does it this way, then he describes his own behaviour, and that is useful to him.
Quine: In fact this example brings out another complication in this concept. Namely, the apprentice has his reason for working the bellows in the ways that he does it. But it isn’t because he wants to steady the flame, it is because he is following the blacksmiths rule.
Skinner: No exactly. See now the rule has taken over entirely. The blacksmith does it both ways, he gives himself additional assurances. The redundant cause is to do it the right way and he may find himself getting careless and doing it the wrong way. But the apprentice’s behaviour is entirely governed by the description of the contingencies; the description of behaviour and the consequences. But the blacksmith, I suppose many blacksmiths before there was verbal behaviour, was doing something like that only because of the physical contingencies.
Quine: Now what would we say was the apprentices reason?
Skinner: I wouldn’t want to use reason. I would simply say that a certain kind of behaviour was reinforced by a steady fire.
Quine: I was speaking of the apprentice.
Skinner: Oh the apprentice. You have to give him a reason. The point is you can tell him that he now knows how to blow. But it isn’t going to do him any good. Knowing how is not enough you have got to give him a reason. You signed a contract in the old days and if you didn’t do it you got a beating.
Julia: I guess that’s Quine is getting at, why should he be doing it?
Quine: And that beating may never have been verbalised.
Skinner: That’s true. I don’t mean to say that there was anything that was not reinforced.
Quine: What I am worried about now is that here we have something that we would like to call a reason, namely the apprentice blows the bellows the way he does so he won’t be punished and that’s his reason. But that never did get into words. So verbalisation is not a necessary condition of something being a reason.
Skinner: No but what he is doing is; doing as directed with words, imitation would have been enough. With imitation you wouldn’t need words to demonstrate. But if you are writing it and you can’t demonstrate you have got to use words and then were getting into words. But you always have to take imitation as a special case where you induce someone to behave for your reasons, not for his, until his reasons take over. I am using ‘reasons’ wrong again there…this is very confusing…
Person B: There is another aspect to this every time he does it wrong you could whip him. So that again wouldn’t respond to the fire he would respond to the whip.
Skinner: Well you could of course do this by shaping up his behaviour. He is hungry and you have bits of food, he wonders around and when he puts his hand on the bellows you give him bits of food. And then you do it again… you could eventually shape this up, you could do this in a monkey for example without words at all. And that would be now just getting someone doing what you wanted him to do without resorting of the contingencies; fire, bellows etc.
Second Section the practical consequences of understanding motivation and reasons:
This section is a discussion of the consequences of Skinner and Quine’s take on rule-following and motivation to practical problems in environmentalism, ethics, etc.
Third Section a discussion of forms of philosophical discourse: the dialogue, the essay etc.
In this section they discuss philosophy, poetry, and the effect of form on philosophical reasoning.


Skinner: Autoclitics and expository description

Some philosophical influences on Skinner’s analysis autoclitics in ‘Verbal Behaviour’: Carnap ‘The Logical Syntax of Language’, Russell ‘Inquiry into Meaning and Truth’, Tarski ‘The Concept of Truth in Formalized Languages’, Quine ‘Elementary Logic’, Mathematical Logic’, John Horne Tooke ‘The Diversions of Purley’.
Some critics of Skinners analysis of autoclitics in ‘Verbal Behaviour’: Chomsky ‘Review of Verbal Behaviour’, Steven Hayes ‘Advances in Relational Frame Theory’.
“Such “propositional attitudes” as assertion, negation and quantification, the design achieved through reviewing and rejecting or emitting responses, the generation of quantities of verbal behaviour merely as such, and the highly complex manipulations of verbal thinking can all, as we can see, be analysed interms of behaviour which is evoked by or acts upon other behaviour of the speaker” (Skinner ‘Verbal Behaviour’ p.313)

(1) Descriptive Autoclitics:
“The speaker may acquire verbal behaviour descriptive of his own behaviour. Although the community can establish such a repertoire only by basing its reinforcing contingencies on observable behaviour, the speaker eventually exhibits it under the control of private events…We shall refer to such responses, when associated with other verbal behaviour effective upon the same listener at the same time, as “descriptive Autoclitics” The term autoclitic is intended to suggest a behaviour which is based upon or depends upon other verbal behaviour.” (ibid p. 313-315)

Skinner notes, sensibly enough, that the contingencies necessary for self-descriptive behaviour are arranged by the social community. The community asks us a variety of different questions “Did you say that?”, “Why did you say that?” etc. Because getting us to answer such questions are useful in many ways in understanding and predicting behaviour. As a result of being implicitly trained by the community to answer these questions, we eventually begin to ask such questions about our own Verbal Behaviour. Autoclitic behaviour is behaviour that is based on or depends on other verbal behaviour. While descriptive autoclitics inform us of the type of verbal behaviour we are omitting (whether Mands, Tacts, etc). There are many different types of autoclitics. (A) A descriptive autoclitic that informs the listener of the type of verbal operant that it accompanies. Some examples: A reader is reading a news paper and says I see it is going to rain, the I see informs the listener that it is going to rain is omitted as a textual response (ibid p. 315). Skinner notes that behaviour that is acquired as textual or echoic behaviour but emitted as Intraverbal behaviour is often prefaced by ‘I see’, ‘I recall’, ‘I am reminded’, ‘I hear’. He notes other examples of descriptive autoclitics such as ‘I demand’, ‘I ask you’ which when prefacing mand make it more effective. He gives examples such as ‘I tell you’, ‘I observe’ which when they preface tacts make them more effective. In these examples the autoclitics which preface the tacts, mands are not necessary but they do make the verbal behaviour more effective. (B) This type of descriptive autoclitic describes the strength of a response. Examples include ‘I guess’, ‘I estimate’, ‘I believe’, ‘I think’, ‘I hesitate to say’ etc. The preceding descriptive autoclitics indicate that what follows is based on insufficient information. Skinner calls the preceding examples autoclitics of weakness. Examples of autoclitics of strength include ‘I insist’, ‘I swear’, ‘I promise’ etc. (C) This type of descriptive autoclitic describes the relation between a response and other verbal behaviour of the speaker or listener, or other circumstances where behaviour is emitted (ibid p. 316). Some key examples are ‘I agree’, ‘I confess’, ‘I infer’, ‘I predict’ ‘I dare say’ ‘I wish’, etc. These responses are helpful for the listener. They help the listener to situate the response which follows to other aspects of the current situation. (D) Another type of descriptive autoclictic indicates the emotional state of the speaker, these type of autoclitics indicate the personal relation between the speaker and the listener. Examples are ‘I regret to inform you’, ‘I hate to say’, ‘I must tell you’ etc. (E) Negative autoclitics qualify or cancel the response which they accompany. Some examples are ‘I don’t think that he has gone’ ‘I would not go as far as to say’ ‘I doubt’ ‘I deny’ etc. (F) Another autoclitic indicates that what is to follow stands in a subordinate position. Examples include ‘for example’, ‘for instance’ etc.
(2) Qualifying Autoclitics:
An important class of responses serve the autoclitic function of qualifying the tact in such a way that the intensity of direction of the listener’s behaviour is modified. There are two main types of qualifying autoclitics. (A) Negation: As Skinner notes philosophers have long tried to analyse the notion of ‘negation’, (this practice goes back at least as far as Parmenides). One of the difficulties is in trying to understand what sentences which include ‘not’, ‘no’ etc refer to. Skinner discussed the sentence ‘It is not raining’. A difficulty occurs when we try to pick out what the sentence is referring to. A possible solution is that the sentence is evoked by a lack of rain in the environment. However this leads to the obvious difficulty of explaining how the infinite amount of things we don’t encounter in our environment don’t likewise compel us to mouth ‘It is not xing’, ‘there is no x’ etc. Skinner, following Russell (whom he cites) notes that an obvious solution to this problem is to argue that sentences like ‘It is not raining’ are evoked by not by environmental conditions but by other verbal behaviour such as ‘Is it raining today?.’ While Skinner thinks that this solution is to some degree correct he also notes that some non verbal stimulus can evoke the response ‘no’. A clear instance of this would be ‘no’ used as a mand to stop a person from engaging in some kind of non-verbal behaviour. This response is also extended to verbal responses such as when a child says ‘2 + 2= 5’. On the response ‘no’ Skinner notes:
“The response is acquired from the reinforcing practices of the verbal community. The child first hears ‘no!’ as the occasion upon which some current activity must be stopped if positive reinforcement is to be received or aversive stimulation avoided” (ibid p. 223)
The child may find himself doing something that typically elicits a ‘no’ from others, the child says ‘no’ himself and this results in him not engaging it the behaviour. This activity will result in the child receiving less punishment and will therefore be reinforcing. Skinner speculates that this practice of saying ‘No’ will eventually be used along with other verbal behaviour such as saying things like ‘Red’ etc. This will lead to the child saying ‘Not Red’ in appropriate circumstances, because of the standardisation in linguistic practices, and punishment and negative reinforcement for those who don’t follow such practices. (B) Assertion: The assertive autoclitic enjoins the listener to accept a given state of affairs (ibid p. 327). Skinner argues that since the assertive autoclitic enjoins someone to do something then it must be considered a special kind of mand. However he qualifies this by noting:
“An autoclictic will sharpen the effect by indicating some of the source of strength, as well as the degree of strength. The assertive autoclitic has the specific function of indicating that the response is emitted as a tact or, under certain circumstances, as in Intraverbal. Other verbal operants are characteristically not asserted. The mand does not need to be, because of the reinforcing contingencies which are responsible for it, and in echoic and textual behaviour the important conditions for the listener are those which prevailed when the echoic or textual stimulus was produced by someone else.” (ibid p. 327)
(3) Quantifying Autoclitics:
Skinner gives as examples of Quantifying autoclitics ‘All’, ‘Some’, ‘A’, ‘The’ etc. In the case of ‘All’ he considers the example ‘All Swans are White’. He notes that when doing logic we would be justified in arguing that ‘All’ modifies ‘Swans’, however things are different when we are concerned with Verbal Behaviour. His reason for arguing thusly is that because in a scientific account of verbal behaviour we cannot assume that a person ever responds to ‘ALL’ Swans. It is more reasonable to say that a man responds to all of the swans in his own personal history. Skinner argues that in this case we are better off interpreting the ‘All’ as always it is possible to say. Thus the ‘All’ will modify the whole sentence ‘Swans are White’ not just the ‘Swan’. Likewise you can translate ‘Some’ as ‘sometimes it is possible to say’. Again the ‘Some’ modifies the whole sentence not just the ‘Swan’. And ‘No’ can be translated as ‘it is never possible to say’, where the ‘No’ modifies the whole sentence not the ‘Swan’ part. The other common quantifying autoclitics are ‘The’ or ‘a’ which serve to narrow the reaction of the listener by indicating a response and the controlling stimulus (ibid p. 329). Quantifying autoclitics typically serve the purpose of modifying the reaction of the listener to the responses they follow.
(4) Relational Autoclitics:
Skinner argues that the “agreement” in number, gender and case between the noun and adjective a language like Latin is a paradigm of a relational autoclitic (ibid p.333) (A) Predication: Skinner notes that a predication occurs when a relational autoclitic is added to an autoclitic of assertion (ibid p. 334) Thus, for example, he notes that the statement ‘The chocolate is good’ shows a relational autocliitic of grouping and ordering and it also contains an autoclitic of assertion. He argues that when you take these together you get a predication (ibid p. 335). (B) Relational Autoclitic Behaviour: This leads Skinner to ask an important question. What are the processes that lead to the emission of a relational autoclitic behaviour?
“Something less than full-fledged relational autoclitic behaviour is involved when partially conditioned autoclitic “frames” combine with responses appropriate to a specific situation. Having responded to many pairs of objects with behaviour such as ‘the hat and the shoe’ and ‘the gun and the hat’ the speaker may make the response ‘the boy and the bicycle’ on a novel occasion. If he has acquired a series of responses such as ‘the boys gun’, ‘the boy’s shoe’, and ‘the boy’s hat’, we may suppose that the partial frame ‘the boy’s_’ is available for recombination with other responses. The first time the boy acquires a bicycle, the speaker can compose a new unit ‘the boy’s bicycle’. This is not simply the emission of two responses separately acquired. The process resembles the multiple causation of Chapter 9. The relational aspects of the situation strengthen a frame, and specific features of the situation strengthen the responses fitted into it.” (Verbal Behaviour p. 336)
(5) Manipulative Autoclitics:
“It is only upon genuinely novel occasions that the listener is specifically manded to modify his behaviour. But these occasions do occur, and the explicit autoclitic activity of the speaker in manipulating his behaviour must be taken into account as an important verbal function” (ibid p. 343)

Some examples are ‘for’, ‘but’, ‘if-then’, etc. Quine deals with these examples early in his ‘Elementary Logic’.

Quine and Skinner: A Philosophical Friendship

In this blog-post I will discuss the intertwined lives of Skinner and Quine. The primary purpose of the blog-post is to evaluate the degree to which they influenced each other’s philosophies. It is well known that Quine and Skinner were friends who held similar views on the nature of mind and language. However, it is important to keep in mind the very different way both theorists worked when speculating on any mutual influence that existed between them.

From the point of view of daily practice, Skinner and Quine were very different theorists. When they first met in 1933 Quine was primarily a logician working on the foundations of mathematics, at this period of his career Skinner was busy experimenting on rat’s behaviour and their physiological correlates. It is true that both theorists were interested in language, mind and naturalised epistemology but one shouldn’t let these shared interests obscure the fact that they worked in very different ways. Quine, like Skinner, was a naturalist who argued that epistemology could be naturalised. However, as a philosopher, Quine was attacking these issues from an abstract point of view, analysing traditional philosophical problems and showing that they could be handled in a naturalistic manner. Skinner was also interested in these theoretical issues but his primary mode of work was experimental. Aside from his experimental work with rats and pigeons Skinner was also an inventor and used his work in a variety of different practical settings. During World War 2 Skinner worked on a top secret project called ‘Project Pigeon’ where he used operant conditioning to train Pigeon’s to guide missiles. In the mid nineteen forties Skinner invented and air conditioned crib for children. While from the mid nineteen fifties onwards Skinner was engaged in inventing teaching machines. Furthermore Skinner’s experimental work involved him inventing machines which were useful for studying the behaviour of organisms. Obviously the character of Quine’s work was very different while he made use of experimental research he didn’t do any experiments. His work on logic and ontology was of a very different character to Skinner’s experimental work and practical inventions.  Nonetheless given the similarities between Skinner and Quine on language and mind it is important to try and evaluate how they may have influenced each other’s work.

Quine and Skinner were famously friends who admired each-others work. Furthermore, they worked on similar topics; both were concerned with giving a naturalistic and behaviouristic account of mind and language. Both theorists were very sceptical of the use of notions like ‘meanings’, ‘ideas’ and ‘propositions’, as explanatory posits in explanations of linguistic communication. They were connected to each other for years; in the early thirties both of them were members of the Harvard Society of Fellows. While from the early 50’s to the mid 70’s Skinner was the Edger Pierce Professor of Psychology, while Quine was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy. Yet despite being friends and having so much in common, very little has been written about the friendship between the two men, nor about how they influenced each other.

In trying to understand how both theorists may have influenced the other there is limited data as neither theorist spoke about the influence they had on each other in any detail. In ‘Ontology Recapitulates Philology: Willard Quine, Pragmatism and Radical Behaviourism’ John C Malone broached the subject of Quine’s influence on Skinner by discussing the topic with people who knew them both. The results were mixed; Bill Verplank argued that Quine was very influential on Skinner, noting the following:

“I had half completed a post [email] on Van Quine’s death when others took note of it. The New York Times had a well-researched obit on this great logician/behaviorist which, however, lacked the emphasis of the profound influence that Skinner and Quine had on one another’s work. . .Through the years of my close relationships (administrative, social, and academic) with Fred Skinner (1946-1955), Quine was a relatively frequent topic of Fred’s conversation, more so during the Indiana years than later, when I did not see Fred almost daily. Both had been greatly affected by their years as Junior Fellows, when Whitehead was associated with this small group. Through Whitehead, Bertrand Russell also contributed to their intellectual development (“There is thinking, and ‘I’ is a pronoun.” Right?) During those years, Quine was there in the background, as attested (at one remove) by one of his students who took my course in Exptl. Psychology at Harvard. In this course, we did a good bit of shaping human behaviour. This activity was promptly recognized as meshed, closely related to, with what one student had been “doing” in philosophy; he was immediately at home. He went me one better, and did a bit of research of his own contrivance. His results were straightforward, and led to the fuller research
that produced my paper on The Control of the Content of Conversation: Reinforcements of Statements of Opinion.” ( Bill Verplanck on Quine and Skinner; taken from John Malone ‘Willard Quine, Pragmatism, and Radical Behaviourism’ p. 4)

On the other hand Paul Meehl argued that Skinner was not influenced by Quine at all. However neither Meehl nor Verplank’s opinions gave us much data to support their conjectures so we are left to interpret the limited comments made by Skinner and Quine to help us build up our picture of their relation. We do know that Meehl was to some degree incorrect about Quine’s influence on Skinner. One area where Quine influenced Skinner was on the analysis of what Skinner called autoclictics. In his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ Skinner praises Quine’s  work in ‘Elementary Logic’ on autoclictics (Skinner ‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 342). Furthermore, in a note in the mid-nineteen seventies when discussing Russell Skinner noted that Quine’s ‘Elementary Logic’ came the closest to giving a behavioural account of logical concepts (Skinner ‘A Matter of Consequences’ p. 395). So there is little doubt that Quine did influence Skinner to some extent.

A common assumption is that Skinner influenced Quine by pointing him towards behavioural science, and that Quine influenced Skinner by directing him towards the relevant philosophy.  There is some truth in this interpretation but it isn’t the whole story. Quine argued that his exposure to behaviourism came before he met Skinner. In his autobiography ‘The Time of My Life’ Quine noted:

“One of the Junior Fellows that first year was the psychologist B. F. Skinner… Fred and I were congenial, sharing an interest in language and a behaviouristic bias in psychology. It has been wrongly assumed that I imbibed my behaviourism from Fred; I lately learned from his autobiography that in fact my exposure to John B. Watson slightly antedated his. It was particularly in language theory, rather, that Fred opened doors for me. My linguistic interest had run to etymological detail; he put me onto Bloomfield and Jespersen and gave me an American first edition of John Horne Tooke.” (Quine: ‘The Time of My Life’ p. 110)

In his speech at Skinner’s retirement party Quine told a similar story. Both Skinner and Quine were budding behaviourists before they met each other. However Skinner did influence Quine’s views on the nature of language. In his ‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist’ Skinner recalled his introducing Quine to Tooke:

“Henderson urged me to look at John Horne Tooke’s ‘Diversions of Purley…The book was out of print but I advertised, and several booksellers sent me quotations. I brought two and gave one to Van Quine, inscribed Verbum Sat. (‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist’ p. 158)

So one needs to becareful in just assuming that Skinner led the way in Quine’s introduction to behavioural science; it was in language where Skinner influenced Quine. This can be seen in ‘Word and Object’ where Quine noted that his account of language was following Skinners.

Likewise when it comes to Quine’s influence on Skinner, we shouldn’t automatically assume that Quine was Skinner’s primary influence in philosophical reading. Skinner was sceptical of philosophy and admitted that he found it tough going convincing philosophers of his views:

“I had been able to talk profitably about Mind with Herbert Feigl, who had come from the Vienna Circle and whose first paper on probability and knowledge and probability, had appeared in the first number of Erkenntnis, to which I was a charter subscriber. Logical Positivism was not far from one kind of behaviourism, and Feigl liked my paper on private events. I could also talk with Willard Van Orman Quine, because as an undergraduate at Oberlin College, he had taken a course using Watson’s ‘Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviourist’ as a text.” (‘A Matter of Consequences’ p. 174)

However despite his scepticism Skinner engaged with philosophy throughout his life. He was influenced by the philosopher Bacon while still in High School. Furthermore it was by reading Bertrand Russell’s review of Ogden’s ‘The Meaning of Meaning’ that Skinner first heard of J.B. Watson. Skinner later credited Russell for turning him into a behaviourist. Skinner’s first paper on the reflex involved him reading and criticising Descartes work. Skinner also read Peirce before he ever met Quine, and he was familiar with the work of the early Wittgenstein. Furthermore Skinner knew Whitehead and was familiar with his philosophy of science. He also read the Pragmatist philosopher C.I. Lewis’s ‘Mind, Word and Order’ very closely. So on September the 25th 1933 when Skinner first met Quine; Skinner was far from philosophically ignorant. Furthermore it should be noted that even while Skinner and Quine were junior fellows together; Whitehead played as big a role in influencing Skinner as Quine did. It was while trying to convince Whitehead on the merits of behaviourism that Skinner was led towards writing ‘Verbal Behaviour’. In a discussion with Skinner Whitehead conceded that behaviourism was a good theory in most areas with the exception of in explaining Verbal Behaviour. Whitehead issued a challenge to Skinner to explain why he mouthed the sentence “No Black Scorpion has fallen on this Table”. Skinner set about writing ‘Verbal Behaviour’ the very next day. Given these facts one needs to be careful in assuming that Quine played a primary role in helping Skinner’s philosophical development.

One area where Quine did influence a young Skinner was in introducing him to the work of Rudolph Carnap.  In a letter to Carnap, Quine noted that he recommended Carnap’s ‘The Logical Syntax of language’ to Skinner:

Thus, for example my friend B.F. Skinner, who is interested in the relations between experimental psychology and logic, postponed a planned work in order to make it possible for him to read your forthcoming book right away.” (Quine letter to Carnap 1934)

We also know that Skinner did indeed read ‘The Logical Syntax of Language’ and made some brief criticisms of it (see Skinner ‘Verbal Behaviour p. 110, 319). In his ‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist’ Skinner mentioned that it was Quine who introduced him to Carnap:

“Your collateral interests…are practically identical with my own. The Meaning of Meaning is an old friend, and I have spent many pleasant hours with its co-author Richards talking about the problems it raises…It was something of a surprise to find that you also looked into Logical Positivism. My first acquaintance with it came through a friend of mine W. V. Quine, who studied with Carnap in Prague. Since then Carnap has come to this country and I saw something of him last summer with Quine [Carnap had given some lectures in the Harvard Department of Philosophy.] He is the only European I have ever met who grasps the significance of modern behaviouristic psychology and its implications for the problem of thought. I have little hope of reconciling logic with psychology, however, except by convincing the logician that most of his problems are essentially psychological-and that is not likely to be successful.” Skinner letter to J. R Kantor 1937 ( Skinner ‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist p. )

Skinner also recalled attending lectures given by Quine on Carnap:

“In December Van Quine gave three lectures on Carnap’s Logical Syntax, and after the last one, he David Prall and I discussed the need for an English Translation” (ibid p. 158)

So one area where Quine clearly influenced Skinner was in introducing him to Carnap.

However a critic could argue that Carnap’s work didn’t play a major role in Skinner’s views on language. But the evidence is that pre-1946 when he wrote ‘The Operational Analysis of Psychological Terms’, Skinner was largely a positivist in his views. In the mid thirties Skinner noted the following:

“As far as I was concerned, there were only minor differences between behaviourism, operationism, and logical positivism. My thesis had been on the operational analysis of the reflex (taking my cue from Bertrand Russell), and that the development let me perform similar analyses of basic psychological concepts in lieu of taking an oral examination had been perfectly serious. I had published an operational definition of drive, and in 1933 I had added details in a letter to Boring; it was a mistake to call hunger a feeling, as he and Walter Cannon at the Medical School were doing.” (‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist’ pp 161-162)

However, one shouldn’t assume that Carnap was Skinner’s primary influence when it came to logical positivism. Skinner mentioned discussing positivism with Feigl:

“I had some contact with Logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle. Through Van Quine I met Rudolph Carnap, whom I saw again when he was ill and staying with the Feigls in Minneapolis. With Feigl himself I discussed behaviourism and the logic of science at length.” (“A Matter of Consequences” p. 128)

But Carnap definitely had a major influence on Skinner. It is instructive that in ‘Verbal Behaviour’ when Skinner had moved into his more pragmatist phase Skinner was very critical of Carnap.

We know that Quine influenced Skinner by steering him towards Carnap and that by the mid Nineteen Forties both Quine and Skinner had moved away from positivism and towards a type of pragmatism. However it is unclear whether Skinner or Quine influenced the other in any serious sense when it came to the move away from Logical Positivism.

We do know that when Skinner started working on his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ he discussed it with Quine:

For a time the material seemed a too much for me (possibly Quine was right), but eventually bits began to fall into place. Van Quine offered support, and so did a student of Ivor Richards, Eric Trist, who was spending a year with Sapir in Yale (‘The Shaping of a Behaviourist p. 151)

This was in 1935 when Quine was moving away from Carnap’s philosophy of language but still was largely a disciple of Carnap. It is tantalising to speculate on whether they influenced each other on their move away from Positivism; however we don’t have enough data to decide the issue.

As I earlier noted Quine considered his philosophy of language largely consistent with Skinner’s ‘Verbal Behaviour’ and discussed it with Skinner while it was been written. Furthermore late in his career (1981) Skinner held a discussion group on the experimental analysis of Verbal Behaviour and Quine was invited along as a guest to discuss the topic:

“A Spanish linguist, Pere Julia, who had taken with Stanley Sapon at the University of Rochester, came to the department as a visiting scholar. He had written an excellent book ‘Explanatory Models in Linguistics: A Behavioural Perspective’, based upon my ‘Verbal Behaviour’, and then the production at the Princeton University Press. Gerald Zuriff, one of our former Ph.D.’s who was now a professor of psychology at Wheaton College, was another visiting scholar. Both Will and Maggie Vaughan were interested in many extensions of an experimental analysis of behaviour, and with these four people I began to meet once a week to discuss issues. We often invited another person to join us for the day- Willard Van Orman Quine, Murray Sidman, Dick Herrnstein, Lars Gustafson (a Sweedish linguist and poet, Richard Held, and Herbert Terrance, among others. We recorded our discussions.” (A Matter of Consequences p. 394)

As we discussed at the beginning of this blog-post Skinner and Quine were very different theorists one was primarily an experimentalist and the other a theoretical philosopher and logician. Nonetheless they did arrive at similar views on the nature of language and we know that from the mid-thirties both theorists discussed Skinner’s nascent ‘Verbal Behaviour’ project and continued to discuss it intermittently throughout their lives. So it is a reasonable assumption that they may have influenced each other’s philosophies. Though it is unclear the degree to which both theorists influenced each other. In my next blog-post I will discuss the relation between ‘Verbal Behaviour’ and ‘Word and Object’ and discuss the differences between both works.


Artisan Philosophy Dublin Ireland (and elsewhere)

Artisan Philosophy in Dublin, Ireland and elsewhere This little work, ‘Plato’s Seventh Letter and the Artisan Workbook Method in Philosophy’, presents a way of doing philosophy by means of workbooks.  The method is briefly described in the Introduction and is set out more fully in Part 2, which contains summaries of a number of workbooks which lend themselves to being used by the method.  Part 1 is an essay on Plato’s Seventh Letter [=7th], which aims to show the importance of the 7th but also the value of the workbook method. Published works tend to have too much armour, be too bullet-proof.  But surely the primary purpose of a written work should be to advance understanding and help the reader or student, not protect the writer or teacher.  And the writers of the workbooks, summarized in Part 2, believe they can stay closer to their own honest thinking, to what they are trying to say, not by satisfying the formal conditions of publication, which can be too concerned with linguistic or pedantic perfection in uniformity and footnotes, or with the aims of commercial publishers. A workbook, as understood here, is a text produced by a competent philosopher who loves philosophy and believes he knows something of value which he hasn’t been able to convey adequately in a text, despite his repeated efforts.  But he feels that his text can do some good, in its interim workbook form, if it, or parts of it, are made accessible to some readers. And most imporantly, unlike authors of published books, he does not leave his text helpless, but is available to make his meaning clearer to its readers, either in person or in emails. So while a workbook is less polished and finished than published works, it should be more alive and living for the writer and so more likely to be so for the reader as well. A copy of David Berman’s work on Artisan Philosophy can be obtained by writing to<> or


No Black Scorpion is falling on this table: A brief look at Skinner on Metaphor

In this blog-post I will briefly discuss Skinner’s take on metaphor. At the end of his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ Skinner discussed an incident that led him to writing the book. While having dinner with philosopher Alfred North Whitehead a discussion of behaviourism ensued. Skinner’s role in this discussion was to defend and explicate behavioural psychology. Near the end of the discussion Whitehead conceded that behavioural psychology was a useful approach to understanding human behaviour. Nonetheless Whitehead argued that one area where he didn’t think behaviourism would be successful is in explaining verbal behaviour. Whitehead gave Skinner a challenge he asked Skinner to explain Whitehead saying ‘No black scorpion is falling on this table’. The next day Skinner started working on ‘Verbal Behaviour’ a project which took him twenty years.

Skinner obviously knew that giving a scientific answer as to why Whitehead spoke the sentence he did was out of the question. Whitehead spoke during a conversation and not in an experimentally controlled environment. So while Skinner could try to offer an educated guess as to why Whitehead spoke that particular sentence, such an explanation would fall far short of a scientific explanation. Skinner noted that this is analogous to the way a physicist could offer some kind of explanation of a temperature dropping in the room on the night Skinner and Whitehead spoke but that such an explanation would be conjectural. No one would argue that that physics stands or falls based on being able to accurately account for every contingent event in our daily experience and similar considerations should apply to behaviourism. Behaviourists when working in a lab can set up controlled environments to help with prediction and control; but behaviour outside of the lab is more difficult to predict and control. Hence Skinner didn’t devote much time to trying to answer Whiteheads challenge to account for him saying ‘No black scorpion is falling on the table’.

Skinner did very briefly try to answer Whitehead’s challenge at the end of the book. While Skinner admits that we will probably never know precisely what environmental contingencies led to Whitehead mouthing the particular sentence; he nevertheless gave a rough reply to Whitehead. It is worth looking at Skinner’s reply to as it is a nice illustration of Skinner’s views on metaphors.

Skinner noted that Whitehead obviously spoke the particular sentence that he did as a way of providing a counter example to behaviourism; the sentence was spoken because it wasn’t obvious that it was controlled by environmental contingencies. However, if Whitehead wanted to use a sentence that wasn’t controlled by particular environmental contingencies then he could have chosen any from a potential infinity of sentences. There seems to be no rhyme or reason why Whitehead said ‘scorpion’ rather than ‘dinosaur’ or ‘wheelbarrow’ or any other type of word.

Skinner tries to understand Whitehead saying what he said by relying on a deterministic assumption. He assumes that whether we can discover what precisely caused the behaviour it is safe to say that there is some cause. Now obviously this assumption is question begging when one is arguing with a person who doesn’t accept determinism. For the sake of argument we will grant Skinner his un- argued assumption of determinism. But this only gives the vaguest of explanations. We can assume that there was some cause of Whitehead’s verbal behaviour but such an assumption doesn’t give us the conclusion that an explanation of the sentence must be a behaviourist explanation. Freud, who Skinner mentioned in this context, was a determinist, but there is no reason to think that he would have accepted a radical behaviourist account of why Whitehead said what he did. So I would argue that even if we give Skinner his un-argued assumption of determinism we still are a long way from demonstrating that a radical behaviourist explanation of Whitehead’s sentence is the correct one.

With his deterministic assumption in place, Skinner goes on to offer a further conjecture as to why Whitehead said what he did. Skinner notes that the inexorable march of science has struck many blows for man’s image of his place in the universe. Copernicus showed that the earth is not the centre of the universe, Darwin showed that that humans are not above the animals but are rather a part of the animal kingdom, Freud showed that our ego isn’t the sole agent of our actions, while Skinner showed that our behaviours which we previously thought we could attribute to free choice, were actually determined by environmental contingencies. Whether Skinner and Freud belong on a list with Darwin and Copernicus is open to debate. But at the time Skinner was talking to Whitehead I think it would have been a fair assessment of how people viewed psychoanalysis and behavioural science. They did seem to be challenging folk theories about how the mind worked and eroding cherished moral concepts which centred on a belief in freewill. So I think that it is not implausible that Whitehead may at some level have viewed behaviourism as a threat to cherished philosophical beliefs.

Skinner claimed that Whitehead implicitly viewing behaviourism as a threat may have affected his choice of words:

“I suggest, then, that black scorpion was a metaphorical response to the topic under discussion. The black scorpion was behaviourism.” (Verbal Behaviour p. 458)

It is somewhat plausible that Whitehead viewed behaviourism as a threat but it is a stretch to go from him holding this view implicitly and it determining him to pick a particular metaphor. To try to throw some bones on this suggestion it helps to think through how Skinner conceived of the nature of metaphor. Skinner analysed metaphors and categorised them as a type of tact, and distinguished metaphors from other linguistic devices such as generalised tacts, abstractions etc.

When discussing metaphors Skinner argued that certain type of extension takes place because of the control exercised by properties of the stimulus which, though present at reinforcement, do not enter into the contingency respected by the verbal community. This is what is traditionally called metaphor. Past theorists have argued that metaphor is made possible by a special faculty of analogical reasoning. But Skinner doesn’t think that we need to posit a faculty of analogical reasoning. He argues that his three term contingency (Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence) is sufficient to account for our ability to engage in metaphorical extension.

He discusses various different examples of metaphors one of which involves a child tasting soda and saying that it tasted like my foot was asleep. Skinner’s analysis is that “My foots asleep” has been conditioned under circumstances that involve two conspicuous stimulus conditions (1) The Partial immobility of the foot, (2) A certain pin point stimulation. The property which the community reinforces is the immobility. But the private pin point stimulation is also important for the child. The similarity between the pin point stimulation and the stimulation evoked by drinking the soda is what caused the child to say “it tastes like my foot is asleep”. He claims that a metaphorical tact in which both properties are public may be analysed in a similar way.

Skinner’s view that a metaphor is sometimes controlled by two types of stimuli, (1) publically observable facts that will be reinforced by the community and (2) private idiosyncratic experiences,  means that he thinks that unusual metaphors may offer insights as to an author’s unique experiences. Thus when speaking of the metaphorical expressions of writers Skinner argues as follows:

“The metaphorical expressions of a given speaker or writer reflect the kinds of stimuli which most often control his behaviour. This fact is commonly used in inferring conditions about the life of a writer either when such facts are not otherwise known or in order to establish authorship.”(ibid p. 95)


Skinner goes on to argue that metaphors are typically employed in literature while in science the extended tact is typically employed. While Skinner doesn’t deny that scientists use metaphor he thinks that the practical nature of science aims at eventually removing metaphors. Our ordinary language when we talk with each other is shot through with metaphors in this sense it is closer to literature than it is to science.

In the case of Whitehead the conjecture is that ‘Black Scorpion’ was reinforced when used in particular circumstances and in relation to other words. It is possible that when Whitehead learned the word; he learned it as a tact, where the use of the word ‘black scorpion’ was reinforced when said in the presence of a picture of a black scorpion. It is also possible that the word ‘black scorpion’ was reinforced when it was associated in relation to other words and hence it was an Intraverbal. Thus a child who categorised black scorpions as dangerous things would have been reinforced.

So if we make the guess that Whitehead like most other people would have been reinforced for thinking of a black scorpion as a dangerous thing, then this points us towards a reason why black scorpions came to his mind. Skinner speculates as follows:

“It is possible, then, that as I described my position-doubtless in the most shocking terms I could command-he was telling himself that that the part which he had played in encouraging me as a young scholar was not entirely misguided, that I was probably not typical of all young men in psychology and the social sciences, that there must be a brighter side-in other words, that on this pleasant and stimulating table no black scorpion had fallen.” (ibid p.459)

Skinner then views Whitehead as respecting Skinner but being shocked by what he viewed as a dangerous doctrine. Thinking of the dangerous doctrine brought to mind another dangerous thing; a black scorpion. But since Whitehead couldn’t bring himself to think of Skinner as a defender of such a dangerous doctrine he negated the proposition that ‘A black scorpion was falling on the table’; to ‘no black scorpion is falling on the table’. Whiteheads sentence then according to Skinner was an expression of sensing danger in Skinner’s behaviourism but not being able to square this danger with Skinner the man.

There is no way to say for certain whether Skinner’s account of why Whitehead chose the particular sentence that he did was correct. But Skinner never intended to prove that his speculative story was correct. Rather Skinner just wanted a proof of concept. He was trying to show in a speculative manner a possible way of explaining Whitehead’s behaviour. On Skinner’s conception of science we could only study actual linguistic usage in a scientific manner by doing tightly controlled lab experiments and his Verbal Behaviour was a call to action as a way for future behavioural scientists to study language.



In a paper now 60 years old ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’ Gregory Bateson the brilliant anthropologist discussed the topics of communication, the logic communication follows, and how communication implicitly works in a psychotherapeutic setting. Bateson drew evidence from work in mathematical logic, observation of animal behaviour, and psychotherapeutic data.  In this blog-post I will discuss Bateson’s interpretation of animal behaviour and how his interpretation of animal behaviour influences his views on psychotherapeutic treatment.

Bateson gives the evolutionary conjecture that our current linguistic capacities may have arisen out of the capacity of non-human animals to engage in play, to issue threats, and deceit. These forms of behaviour indicate that the animal is not merely using a signal to denote internal mood or external object. Rather the behaviour is meta-communicative. If you consider a common form of behaviour in dogs the ‘Play-bow’, where the dog stands in front of the owner and bows the front part of the body as he stares intently on his owner. This form of behaviour is typically engaged in when the dog wants to engage in play. Once the dog has indicated he is playing with the ‘play bow’ the dog will then pretend to fight, or run away to indicate he wants to be chased etc. Here is a short video showing two dogs using the ‘play bow’ .

The ‘play-bow’ has been well studied scientifically Hare and Woods describe it as follows:

“Dog’s frequently use visual signals to communicate with others during their natural interactions. When dogs are playing, careful observations have shown that gestures such as play bows (dropping the chest to the ground and preparing to spring back at the first sigh of a chase) are used to signal that their behaviour is meant in good fun. Where a quick approach and forceful contact might usually lead to aggression, the same behaviour preceded by a play bow leads to a friendly response. When other dogs see a play bow, they can agree to the game with another visual gesture. They usually do this using a ‘self-handicapping’ gesture that makes them more vulnerable (rolling on their back). This means that dogs might flexibly use visual gestures to communicate, perhaps even more than vocal behaviour. ” (Hare and Woods ‘The Genius of Dogs’ p. 136)

John Bradshaw notes the same structural features of the ‘Play-bow’ as Hare and Woods and notes that dog play differs depending on whether dogs are playing with other dogs or with humans:

 “In short, dogs appear to be in a completely different frame of mind depending on whether they are playing with a person or another dog. When the play-partner is a dog, possession of the toy seems to be most important- and indeed, it is possible that competitive play is one way that dogs assess each other’s strength and character…When the play-partner is a person, however, possession of the toy seems almost irrelevant; the important thing is the social contact that the game produces. This finding is entirely compatible with the observation that dogs are unable to calm one another down, but can be calmed by their owners. It also indicates that dogs put humans in a completely different mental category from other dogs.” (John Bradshaw ‘In Defence of Dogs’ p. 204)

We can see from these descriptions that dogs can indicate when they are about to engage in play and can modify their play depending on who they are playing with.

Bateson noted that there is an interesting logic to animal play. Thus suppose a dog nips another dog on the ear while playing with him; Bateson would parse this as follows ‘These actions in which we now engage, do not denote what would be denoted by those actions which these actions denote’ (Bateson: ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’ p. 4). In other words the playful nip denotes the bite, but it doesn’t denote what would be denoted by the bite (ibid p. 4). Bateson’s interpretation of the logic of play behaviour is interesting as an analysis of the behaviour, but it becomes less convincing if we view it as a description of the animal’s psychological processes.

When a dog does a ‘play-bow’ is there any good reason to think that the dog is explicitly using it to indicate that all further actions within this frame are taking place on a different logical level? Here it is helpful to draw a distinction that Michael Devitt makes in his (2006) ‘Ignorance of language’:

In sum, to be a processing rule that governs the activities of a chess player, logic machine or dancing bee is one thing, to be a structure rule governing the outputs of such activities is another. And a structure rule of the outputs may have no place among the processing rules that produce these outputs” (Devitt: ‘Ignorance of Language’ p. 21)

Devitt notes that while scientists were able to discover structural rules in the Bee’s waggle dance; this still left them with a hard job of discovering the processing rules that are used to cause the dance. It isn’t a priori true that the processing rules used by the Bee must represent or even embody the structural rules; rather all that is needed is that the processing rules respect the structural rules. A similar argument holds in the case of animal play behaviour; just because we can analyse the behaviour as having certain structural properties doesn’t mean that we should a priori assume that the animal’s behaviour is caused by processing rules that do anything more than respect the structure rules.

Bateson seems to think that when engaging in play the animal is capable of recognising that this play is similar to non-play behaviour. Thus in Bateson’s example of a dog playfully nipping another dog in play; Bateson thinks that the dog recognises that the nip is similar to a bite done in anger. The dog recognises that the play nip though similar in structure to an angry bite is different. Furthermore the dog knows that the other dog he is playing with can recognise the distinction as well.

Now while it is entirely possible that the Bateson’s hypothesis is the correct one, it should be acknowledged that simpler explanations of the dog’s behaviour are possible which don’t attribute such complex propositional attitude thought processes to the animal. At the very least we need some further experimental data to help us decide between Bateson’s hypotheses and simpler rival explanations.

In his 1991 paper ‘Bateson’s concept of “Metacommunication” in Play’ Robert Mitchell noted that it is unclear whether animals recognise that their play is similar to fighting behaviour:

“Do organisms recognize that their partner simulates other actions? This one question is actually two: Do organisms distinguish between the simulated actions in play and the actions they simulate? Symons (1978 p. 124) answers the first question affirmatively for monkeys: “both the human observer and other monkeys can almost always distinguish playfighting and fighting.” The organism’s differentiation between simulation and that which is simulated (see Fagen, 1981, p. 356) need not be evidence of the organism’s knowledge of the simulation as such, since it fails to tell us whether or not the animal recognizes the similarities amid the differences, that is whether or not the simulation represents or refers to the simulated thing for the organism. If an organism recognizes that s (the simulation) is a simulation of f, then they recognise that s is not f…Thus, the significant question is whether or not organisms ever recognize the similarity or “sameness” between simulation and simulated actions of another while also recognising the difference between them.” (Mitchell, R ‘Bateson’s concept of “Metacommunication” in Play’ p. 79)

Mitchell thinks that evidence of dogs trying to avoid being deceived by their owner in games of “fake out” is good evidence that the dogs engage in dual recognition of both literal and play moves (Mitchell and Thompson, 1991). However the evidence provided by Mitchell is inconclusive at best. So as it stands we don’t have conclusive evidence as to whether animals understand play in the way Bateson suggests. Furthermore it is pretty sloppy to even speak of animal cognitive capacities in relation to play given the different capacities of animals. However, even when we specify and just speak of a particular species such as the domestic dog, we are no closer  to understanding whether Bateson’s conjecture is accurate about the understanding dogs have of the meaning of play.

Obviously a valuable heuristic to work with is to adopt the simplest explanation of the behaviour consistent with our current knowledge. Thus Daniel Dennett in his recent book ‘From Bacteria to Bach and Back’ discusses complex animal behaviour which appear perfectly rational and he shows ways that we can explain this behaviour without implausibly attributing to the animal representations of the reasons for this behaviour. Thus Dennett discusses cases such as Cuckoo’s dropping their eggs in the nest of another bird. When the baby Cuckoo is born he proceeds to push the bird’s eggs out of the nest with the “aim” that the bird will use all its resources to feed the baby Cuckoo. While there is no reason to assume that the baby Cuckoo represents reasons for his behaviour; we can appeal to what Dennett calls ‘Free-floating-Rationales’ to explain his actions. In this sense we can argue that there is a reason for the baby Cuckoo’s behaviour even though the reason wasn’t represented by any subject. These reasons can be discovered by theorists after the fact who use ‘reverse-engineering’ to discover the evolutionary logic that makes sense of the Cuckoo’s behaviour. Dennett uses this logic to explain the behaviour of other animals without attributing complex propositional attitudes to animal; thus he explains antelope stotting by using the logic of natural selection and ‘free-floating-rationales’. Antelope stotting is when Antelopes leap up in the air while being chased. The Antelopes who engage in stotting are less likely to be eaten by the Lion chasing them. Dennett notes that it is possible to tell a story where the Antelope realises that Antelopes who stot are less likely to get eaten and hence the Antelope decides to stot. Likewise it is possible to view the Lion as reasoning that creatures who can jump that high are likely to present more of a struggle than those who don’t stot hence the Lion avoids attacking stotting Antelopes. But Dennett skilfully shows that we can explain the behaviour of the Antelopes and the Lions without attributing these representational states by appealing to the logic of natural selection

(Dennett ‘From Bacteria to Bach and Back pp. 89-90). Dennett goes on to argue that competence without comprehension is nature’s way; beavers can build dams without representing reasons as to how to build them; birds can build nests without representing explicit plans as to how to build them; the same is true of termites building termite castles. So Dennett reasons plausibly enough that we shouldn’t attribute comprehension to creatures unless we have compelling reasons to do so.

Dennett’s logic can be used in the dog play case as well. There may be evolutionary reasons why dogs play together but the dogs don’t have to represent these reasons. Dogs can have competence in playing without necessarily having any comprehension as to why they play. It is easy enough to give an evolutionary explanation as to why dogs need to play interms of social bonding, practicing fighting etc without assuming that the dog ever represents these reasons or understands them at a meta-level like Bateson suggests. Obviously, using Dennett’s evolutionary logic to offer a simpler explanation of Dog play doesn’t settle the issue on whether Bateson is correct or not. To settle this issue detailed experimental data is needed. However despite their being good experimental studies on dog cognition ( see Hare, Tomasello, and Call), there is not as of yet sufficient data to decide the issue.

This issue isn’t just restricted to discussions of animal cognition. The issue actually extends into issues in mental illness. Bateson’s logical analysis of animal play was extended in a sloppy way into understanding children’s play, and even into understanding mental illness in general. Bateson argued that people, like non-human animals, often slipped between different logical levels when in conversation. He believed that some mental illnesses could be better understood if we could understand the different logical levels of communication. So Bateson’s understanding of animal cognition influenced how he understood mental illness in humans as well.

Even today our understanding of mental illness is filtered through our understanding of non-human animals. In his book ‘Anxious’ neuroscientist Joseph Le Doux criticised the Darwinian theory of emotions one of the primary exemplars of which is the late Jaap Panksepp. Panksepp described all mammals as sharing the same basic emotional systems: Seeking, Rage, Fear, Care, Play etc. Le Doux argues that the evidence that Panksepp provides to indicate that all mammals share the same emotional systems, is consistent with these non-human animals engaging in instinctive behaviours without necessarily experiencing anything like human emotions. Le Doux argues that while the evidence clearly indicates that threats do release innate behavioural responses and physiological patterns, but that attributing to animals reacting in these ways feelings of fear is an interpretation that goes well beyond the facts. Le Doux champions the view that fear in humans are psychological constructions that heavily depend on our linguistic abilities. Le Doux describes the difference between him and Panksepp as follows:

 “The main difference between my view and Panksepp’s is therefore, whether subcortical systems are directly responsible for primitive emotional feelings or instead are responsible for nonconscious factors that are integrated with other information in cortical areas to give rise to conscious feelings. What Panksepp calls cognitive feelings, are I maintain, what feelings are. The subcortical states are, as he also says at times, “truly unconscious” and thus not feelings at all. They are, in my view, nonconscious motivational states.” (Anxious p. 150)

“The evolutionary function of this ancient capacity is not to generate emotions like fear or anxiety, but simply to help ensure that the organism’s life continues beyond the present…Survival circuits do not exist to make emotions (feelings). They instead manage interactions with the environment as part of the daily quest to survive” (ibid pp 43-44)

Le Doux argues that medication that works on rats to help them overcome things like freezing when threatened may have some behavioural effects on human behaviour but they may not touch on the actual emotional feelings which are heavily tied up into linguistic and cortical systems. Obviously I will not here be able to decide between whether Panksepp, or Le Doux are right on this complex issue (I have discussed the topic elsewhere: ). My primary reason for bringing it up is because it further illustrates how our interpretation of the behaviour of non-human animals will influence our understanding of topics like mental illness. At this moment in time we have competing interpretations of animals which differ on the degree to which we are justified in attributing consciousness to them, or the degree to which we are justified in attributing propositional attitude explanations of their behaviour etc. While heuristic advice such as Dennett’s (basically an updated version of Occam’s Razor applied to animal ethnology) is useful it can only take us so far. To decide the issue we need detailed experiments. Hypotheses such as Bateson’s are useful in that they propose models which can then be tested using rigorous experiments. But this experimental probing is in its infancy so progress is likely to be slow. Below is a brilliant example of different theoretical models of cognition (Jerry Fodor vs Donald Davidson) leading to some great experimental work . One can only hope that whether right or wrong Bateson’s hypothesis inspires future experimental work.



Pigliucci on Philosophical Counselling

In a recent blog-post Massimo Pigliucci discussed the case of philosophical counselling and addressed some criticisms that it was a pseudo-science. Pigliucci addressed these criticisms in a balanced manner and his responses were largely convincing. Basically he argued that philosophical counselling could be thought of in two ways (1) As a type of therapy and (2) As a type of life coaching. Pigliucci argues once it is understood that philosophical counselling is not a form of therapy but a form of life coaching; criticisms of it for being a pseudoscience dissolve. While I found a lot to agree with in Pigluicci’s analysis, I felt his demarcation between therapy and life coaching was a bit too quick and blurred some important conceptual distinctions. However before discussing these conceptual distinctions I will first address Pigliucci discussion of the nature of therapy and his comparison of psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioural science.

When discussing two forms of therapy he distinguishes between Freudian Psychoanalysis and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. He makes the claim that while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is well supported scientifically some philosophers think that Freudian Psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience. A couple of points need to be made about this claim. Firstly while the cliché still exists that psychoananalysis is unsupported by empirical evidence while Cbt is not; there is not as much substance to this cliché as some believe.  While it is true that CBT has historically been subject to more empirical testing than Psychoanalysis this is changing; a lot of long term studies exist which demonstrate that Psychoanalysis is as effective as CBT.  In this utube clip  ‘The Case for Psychoanalysis’ Dr John Thor Cornelius brings a lot of impressive comparative studies of the long term treatment with CBT and Psychoanalysis. And Cornelius finds that both forms of therapy perform at a par, except in the long term where psychoanalysis out performs CBT.  In the paper by ‘The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Dr Johathan Shedler again offers compelling evidence of the comparative effectiveness In the website of The Neuropsychoanalytic Association further evidence for the utility of psychoanalytic psychotherapy is provided. Now this evidence is obviously only the tip of the iceberg and there is some dispute about the various different studies that have been done. I present it just to counterbalance the implicit suggestion by Pigluicci that psychoanalytic psychotherapy is not evidence based.

Pigluicci’s claim that some philosophers think that psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience is certainly true. A prominent proponent of this view was the philosopher Karl Popper whose criticism of psychoanalysis was that it was not falsifiable. Popper noted that the core sciences made precise claims that were falsifiable in principle. Thus he noted the falsifiable aspect of the theory of relativity where light bending around the moon in a particular way at a particular time was a potential way of disproving the theory of relativity. Popper went on to note that a theory is never totally confirmed to be correct it is just becomes better corroborated as it passes more tests. Popper contrasted this scientific behaviour with the behaviour of psychoanalysts and Marxists who claimed to engaging in science. Popper argued that no possible empirical evidence could possibly refute either psychoanalysis or Marxism. It was this supposed dogmatic resistance to refutation that Popper believed stopped psychoanalysis from being a science.

Now two points need to be made here. The first is to do with Popper’s falisificationist principle. The principle has come under heavy attack from philosophers such as Kuhn, Feyerabend and Quine. Most philosophers today do not accept Popper’s so called gold standard to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. Furthermore practicing scientists today have serious disagreements about the importance of Popper’s gold standard to distinguish science from pseudoscience. In linguistics critics of Generative Grammar note how the theory is shielded from falisification by ad-hoc reasoning. The defenders of generative grammar note that Poppers criterion is at odds with actual scientific practice. Thus defenders of generative grammar argue that they are simply adopting the Galilean method which has no use for naive falsification. Now this debate gets very heated and I we don’t have time to go into it here. I mention it to illustrate that Popper’s philosophy of science is not accepted both by a lot of philosophers and by a lot of scientists. So his falsification argument cannot be assumed to be an automatic defeater of the scientific status of psychoanalysis.

But even if we did accept Popper’s criterion as one hundred percent correct it still doesn’t demonstrate that Psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience. This is because Popper never backed up his criticisms of psychoanalysis with any actual psychoanalytic texts, case studies etc. This fact surprises a lot of people. Those who have never read Popper think that he somehow demolished the scientific status of psychoanalysis. But this is not true. In fact throughout his various different critiques of psychoanalysis he provides absolutely no textual evidence to support his claims that psychoanalysis is unfalisifiable in principle. The most we get is a mention of a very casual conversation he had with the psychoanalyst Adler. This anecdotal evidence of Popper’s does seem to show that Adler was dogmatically assuming the truth of the theory come what may. But obviously an anecdote is not sufficient to refute an entire discipline. Pigliucci notes the weakness of anecdotes in his blog-post: I think

“This is somewhat problematic, because it doesn’t distinguish between the academic practice of PC and what some of the counselors may say in an informal setting. It also means that a study that criticizes PC for lack of rigor and evidence based methodology suffers, in substance, from similar issues.” (Philosophical Counseling as Pseudo-science)

I think Piguliucci’s criticism could apply just as much to Popper to as it does to Roxana and Gerardo. Of course Pigliucci doesn’t explicitly say he is relying on Popper’s criticisms of psychoanalysis he merely notes that some philosophers of science think it is pseudoscience. It is true that some philosophers are critical of the scientific status of psychoanalysis. But it is difficult to assess whether they are right until Pigliucci states who they are and what aspects of their arguments he finds compelling. Saying that some philosophers think psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience isn’t saying too much. Some philosophers think the same of evolutionary theory (for example Popper in his early days), but this fact wouldn’t convince many people that evolutionary theory is not a scientific theory.

I should note that I agree that there are some problems with psychoanalysis. Freud’s psychosexual stages of development are almost certainly false. Interestingly Psychoanalyst Daniel Stern in his ‘The Interpersonal World of the Infant’, rejects some of Freud’s speculative developmental theories and replaces them with worked a combination of detailed observation of children and theories drawn from modern developmental psychology. This fact makes it difficult to take seriously charges that psychoanalytic theory is unfalisifiable. Responsible theorists modify the theory as they learn new facts. There will always be people who refuse to modify their theories as they learn more about the world but such people unfortunately exist in all areas of scientific research.

Another difficulty with psychoanalysis is its reliance on implausible homunculus such as censors, egos, super-egos etc. Again even here there is some interesting philosophical research done to integrate psychoanalysis with standard cognitive science. A good example of this work is Vesa Talvite’s book ‘Freudian Unconscious and Cognitive Neuroscience’ which treats things like ‘censors’ using Dennett’s stance-stance approach. In sum psychoanalysis is in better shape than Pigliucci wants to acknowledge; though it like any field of inquiry it still has its problems.

Thus far I have been arguing that psychoanalysis and CBT are on a par with each other in terms of their scientific status. But I have been presenting psychoanalysis as too narrow a field. Not every psychoanalyst conceives it as a scientific discipline. Some psychoanalysts rather conceptualise their subject as a form of hermeneutics while others wed the theory to existentialism and phenomenology as opposed to biology. These psychoanalysts reject a lot of Freud’s mechanistic explanations and focus instead on the intersubjective clinical setting where clients reveal themselves to their therapist.

It is interesting when developing his claim that Philosophical Counselling is a form of life coaching Pigliucci notes that it is a humanistic discipline and one that doesn’t make claims of efficacy. The reason for this he argues is that efficaciousness will vary from person to person, depending on the needs of the client and the philosophical approach both the client and the counsellor find useful. He also notes that Philosophical Counselling as a form of life coaching doesn’t deal with actual psychopathology and that this is a key difference between it and therapy. He further notes ordinary problems of life should not be medicalized.

Philosophical counselling in this sense sounds somewhat like the type of psychoanalysis favoured by intersubjective system theorist Robert Stolorow. Stolorow psychoanalysis which he calls Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis is built upon the work of Martin Heidegger ( ‘World, Affectivity, Trauma’ is a good introduction to Stolorow’s work). There are some similarities with his approach and the approach of the philosophical councillor. Both would reject efficacy studies, as the therapy involves an intersubjective relation between two people engaging in a conversation about real world problems. Both do not consider psychoanalysis a science. Both reject the medicalization of ordinary experiences like trauma, death, loneliness etc. A real point of departure is that psychoanalysts like treat people with psychopathologies whereas philosophical counsellors do not ( I have further discussed existential psychoanalysis here for people looking for more data .

Pigliucci argues that philosophical counsellors should not treat patients with psychopathologies because of their lack of scientific credentials. One wonders how he views existentialist psychoanalysts who regularly work with patients who suffer from mental illness but who claim to not be scientists. The longitudinal studies indicate that there is little difference in whether the therapist is a psychoanalyst (of the scientific persuasion) or existential psychoanalysts, or cognitive behavioural therapists. So from a pragmatic point of view the therapists are doing as much good in helping their patients as their counterparts in other therapeutic schools. Although I would imagine that such studies would not impress the existential psychotherapists who are interested in individual client analyst interaction not some generalization that ignores these differences. But someone like Pigliucci would place some stock in these type of studies and so cannot easily dismiss existential psychotherapists even though they claim to not be engaging in science. Overall I think that it is worth reflecting that some therapeutic practices may be closer to the practices of philosophical counsellors than they are to scientific therapies.


Dennett and the Evolution of Language


“To my own surprise, I’ve come to believe that there is an element of truth in the apparently less plausible Platonic story that’s easy to miss, one that seems to be almost completely obscured by the paradox that both Quine and Plato have described. It isn’t that our languages were deliberately invented by particular groups of people, legislators of syndics in the formal sense of these words, sitting around particular tables, at particular times in the past. It seems to me that they’re more like our dogs, our wolfhounds and sheepdogs and dachshunds, our retrievers, and pointers and greyhounds. We didn’t invent them exactly, but our ancestors did repeatedly make deliberate more or less rational choices in the process that made them what they are today, choices among a long series of slightly incrementally different variants, unconsciously shaping the dogs into precisely what their human breeders needed them to be. ( Cloud: The Domestication of Language p. 8)


Dennett’s chapter on the evolution of language is very vague. Dennett notes from the outset that discovering the origins of language is one of the major unsolved problems in science on a par with explaining the origins of life. His explication of the origins of language is meant as a general sketch of how a naturalistic account of the evolution of language could occur without any of what he calls “a skyhook”. By “a skyhook” he typically means some kind of miracle. In that sense his theory of language while vague is truistic as every adult doing research on the evolution of language rules out miracles. But Dennett also classes Chomsky’s theory as a skyhook; as he views it as an improbable theory or hopeful monster with little evidence to support it. In this regard I think Dennett’s reasoning is very weak he sketches his own vague theory about how the evolution of language occurred and offers a critique of Chomsky that is little more than a caricature.


Dennett segments the chapter on the origin of language into two sections


(1) The Chicken-Egg problem:


In the first section he argues that all he needs for the purpose of his book is a bird’s eye view on various different takes on the evolution of language. He notes that language may originally have been an ungainly mess that was later streamlined by evolution. As always in thinking about the origin of an entity or behaviour Dennett asks the question who benefited from the proliferation of languages? He notes that scholars traditionally would claim that people were the beneficiaries of language but Dennett argues that when we take the memetic point of view another approach becomes possible. Dennett argues that in the beginning language may have been more of a hindrance than a help.


            He gives a list some of the key functions that language served: (1) Communicative Utility (2)Productivity (3) Digitality (4) Displaced Reference (5) Ease of Acquisition. He briefly considers the possibility a key precursor to language would have been the unique way humans co-operate (a possibility discussed in detail in Tomasello 2014) and goes onto discuss the work of Boyd and Richardson on the precursors to language. Dennett notes that in our search for precursors we should open minded to precursors that weren’t necessarily immediately beneficial to humans:


“Instead of looking only at the prerequisite competences our ancestors needed to have in order for language to get underway, perhaps we should also consider vulnerabilities that might make our ancestors the ideal hosts for infectious but nonvirulent habits (memes) that allowed us to live and stay mobile long enough for them to replicate through our populations.” ( Dennett ‘From Bacteria to Bach and Back’ p. 254)


He asks us to consider the possibility that language was at first like a virus that infected us. He argues that the memes which stood the constant selection pressures of their environment; the ones who survived, would be structured in such a manner that they would fit the brains of their human hosts better than the other memes that didn’t pass selection muster. As a result of this he claims:


“Innovations in memes that made them more effective reproducers in brains that were not yet well designed for dealing with them could provide the early “proof of concept” that would underwrite, in effect, the more expensive and time-consuming genetic adjustments in brain hardware that would improve the working conditions for both memes and their hosts” ( ibid p. 255)


Given that culture is such a key feature of what made homo-sapiens special Dennett notes that any sensible theory will need to show why homo-sapiens developed culture but other mammals, as well as fish and birds have not. There must be some threshold that they needed to pass but didn’t; Dennett considers a variety of different possible innovations that could act as a threshold e.g. Bipedality, Social intelligence, Imitation etc. His discussion is curiously vague he considers a variety of different theories and notes that there isn’t enough data to solve the problem.


While Dennett’s sketch is thus far very unspecified it does bare a resemblance to other theories that were sketched in more detail e.g. Deacon’s theory as sketched in his Symbolic Species, and Christiansen and Chater’s theory as written in their “Language as Shaped by the Brain”. Dennett notes that his position is similar to the position held by Christiansen and Chater’s but he argues that they misconstrue the nature of memetics and that they exaggerate the case against genetic evolution (ibid. p.279)


(2) The Winding paths to human language:


In this section he discusses how once we have our proto-language in place it could have developed into full blown language: he considers three routes: (A) It began as a proto-language where short utterances like the Vervet Monkey’s alarm calls which were appropriate to the situation but which lacked productivity and any distinction between imperatives and declaratives (B) Perhaps a gesture language came first used for attention grabbing and emphasis (ibid p. 266) (C) Perhaps an auditory “peacock’s tail” arms race for vocal signals and improvisations. After this he goes on to explicate Hurford’s work on the origins of language he does a good job of describe Hurford’s work ( interestingly when I read Hurford I was critical of him from a partially Dennett point of view But Dennett endorses his views.


Dennett’s discussion of the fact that; though we can describe people’s linguistic behaviour interms of rules; this doesn’t mean they represent those rules in the brain (they may be free floating rationales) was important. Though it should be noted Quine and Davidson made similar points before him. To see the importance of considering free-floating rationales and the idea of competence without comprehension in relation to language evolution it is worth having a detour and considering a conjecture of Dan Everett’s in his recent paper ‘Grammar Came Later: Triality of Patterning and the Gradual Evolution of Language’.


 According to Everett there is evidence that language of some sort has been around 1 million years. Acheulean tools were not developed 1.76 million years ago. Chomsky and Berwick speculate that long lag between language development may have been a result of the fact that language did not exist at this time. Everett admits that this is a possibility but that it is just as likely that it resulted from ‘saticificing’ we look for good enough not for perfection. (Everett). Homo Erectus immigrated from Africa to Europe around 900,000 years ago, Everett argues plausibly that it strains credulity that such a feat would have been possible without some kind of language. Surely some kind of complex communication would have been necessary in order for boats to be built. Everett’s claim is plausible; it is indeed hard to imagine how a person could learn to build boats to sail across the continent without some kind of linguistic skills. However despite the plausibility of Everett’s claim there is reason to doubt it. Dennett’s uses the slogan “competence without comprehension” throughout his book, he gives examples of creatures who are competent at certain behaviours but do not internally represent reasons for those behaviours. He notes the behaviour of Antelope Stotting where the Antelope’s who can jump high when being chased are much less likely to be attacked by Lions. There is an evolutionary reason we can give for the Antelope’s behaviour as Dennett notes it is almost like the Deer is saying “Don’t bother chasing me I am hard to catch; concentrate on one of my cousins who isn’t able to stot-much easier meal” (Dennett ‘From Bacteria to Bach p. 91). One can also imagine the Lion using similar logic as a reason to guide his behaviour towards the stotting Antelopes. But of course implausibly attributing such complex propositional attitudes to the Antelopes and the Lions is not needed. The logic of natural selection dictated that stotting Antelopes survive better than their non-stotting cousins and Lions who attack stotting Antelopes are less like to feed and hence to survive. There is a reason why the Antelope behaves as it does but the Antelope doesn’t need to represent these reasons. Similar considerations apply to the behaviour of newborn Cuckoo’s kicking the eggs of non-Cuckoo’s out of the nest as soon as she is born. There is a reason for the Cuckoo’s behaviour but the Cuckoo’s doesn’t have to represent those reasons. Similar considerations apply to Australian Termite castles; the Termites build the complex structures without speaking to each other and instructing each other (ibid p. 238)


            A defender of Everett’s thesis could argue that the case of building a termite castle is not remotely comparable to building boats to sail to another continent. But this is not necessarily the case. Dennett cites a passage from Rogers and Ehrlich (2008):


“Every boat is copied from another boat…Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages and thus never be copied…one could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying others” (ibid p. 214)


Now this is a striking passage where the sea plays a role of “designer” of the boat. Various different shapes are tried but only the shapes that work are selected.  Foresight is not a necessary condition of building complicated ships rather trial and error “decides” what the best design is. People can copy designs that appear to work and modify them in ways that may or may not work. Furthermore the people who built boats that (with the help of the sea or natural selection), obviously wouldn’t have to represent where they want to go. An instinct for discovery would do the job to get them sailing, and luck as well as “design”  would play an important a role in whether these people ended up in another continent. Everett could be right that language played role in the Homo-erectus emigrating to Europe but he hasn’t established this position nor ruled out the alternative theories. One of the strengths of Dennett’s book is that he gets us to search for ‘Free-Floating Rationales’ for evolutionary cheap tricks which give creatures the competence to perform a task without the creature necessarily having comprehension of why they are doing what they are doing. Dennett offers us an alternative to Everett’s proposal and thus gives us further theory to test. Everett’s story still has some plausibility to it but considerations of Dennett’s idea of ‘Free-Floating Rationale’s’ show that things are not as clear cut as Everett seems to think.


But while there are strong points to Dennett’s book his discussion of Chomsky was a non-engagement; he didn’t even try to understand where Chomsky was coming from. Dennett has long been a critic of Chomsky’s views on the evolution of language. In his ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ Dennett discussed how he attended a conference on AI and psychology in Tufts in 1978 and was shocked to see Chomsky reject engineering approaches to the faculty of language. Chomsky seemed to be fixated on language being something which could either be described interms of fundamental laws of physics or failing that as something which we could only describe in a similar manner that literary theorists describe human behaviour.  Dennett whose life work has involved trying to reverse engineer the mind obviously rejects this dichotomy of Chomsky’s noting that Chomsky is ignoring engineering solutions. I think there is a real degree of truth to this claim. But it is not the case that Chomsky ignores engineering solutions he rather adopts a different philosophy of science than Dennett. Linguist and Chomskian Cedric Boeckx discussed Chomsky’s attitude to science in his (2006) ‘Linguistic Minimalism’. Boeckx correctly noted that that Chomsky’s attitude to biology is different to a lot of main stream biologists. Chomsky as a formalist seeks to abstract from messy details and construct formal models which he thinks can capture certain core competencies. But a lot of evolutionary biologists seek to explore messy detail using functional explanations and reverse engineering. Both methods are scientific and Darwin used similar methods of a lot of evolutionary biologists while Newton’s used the methods preferred by Chomsky. Boeckx cites Freeman Dyson’s paper ‘From Manchester to Athens’ (1982) where he distinguishes between two styles of scientists the unifiers and the diversifiers. These different styles are best exemplified Newton and Darwin. Boeckx notes that looking back over the history of science we see that the greatest successes in science have been made by the unifiers. Boeckx is probably correct on this point but it is no indication that this pattern will continue nor is it true of evolutionary biology where the greatest success have been achieved by the diversifiers. Obviously in the debate between Chomsky and Dennett the unifier is Chomsky and the diversifier is Dennett. The point is that both positions are perfectly respectable positions to take in scientific theorising so Chomsky not adopting the engineering approach that Dennett recommends is not automatically a black mark against Chomsky. A scientific theory is to be judged by its successes in prediction and explanation and in this sense Chomsky’s theory has more than paid its way. Dennett’s conjectures on the evolution of language are just conjectures that may in the future pay their way but as of yet have not done so.


 Dennett’s criticisms of Chomsky in both his ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ and his ‘From Bacteria to Bach and Back’ centre on what Dennett perceives to be Chomsky’s uncomfortableness with language being tool created by natural selection:


The Idea that words have evolved by natural selection was obvious to Darwin, and one would that Noam Chomsky, who pioneered the idea of an innate Language Acquisition Device in the brain, would look with favour on evolutionary accounts of how languages in general, and words in particular, came to have their remarkable features, but he has disparaged evolutionary thinking in linguistics in almost all regards” ( ‘From Bacteria to Bach’ p. 187)


But Chomsky made the claim suspect in many quarters through his adamant resistance to any attempt to account for the design of the LAD by natural selection!” (ibid p. 277)


If Dennett was making this claim in 1995 he would have some justification as Chomsky’s few remarks on the evolution of language were pretty sceptical of the possibilities of us being able to explain the evolution of language. But since that that date Chomsky has written dozens of articles and co-authored a book explicitly designed to demonstrate how language evolved. So Dennett’s remark is simply incorrect and has little to justify it. Chomsky and Berwick in their recent book on the evolution of language ‘Why Only Us’ do argue that merge that was selected for its use in thinking. They call this the faculty of language narrow. But they also discuss the faculty of language broad which consists of the sensory motor system and the conceptual intentional system. Both the sensory motor system and the conceptual intentional system are according to Chomsky adaptations built up by tinkering processes of natural selection. So it is unfair to say that Chomsky is adverse to explanations interms of adaptations he uses them when he thinks they are appropriate. Furthermore Chomsky presents evidence as to why he thinks merge was a mutation by citing archaeological evidence that indicates a great leap forward about 60,000 years ago which indicates a sudden leap in intelligence. Now many theorists such as Everett, Tomasello, and McNeill have critiqued this but they addressed Chomsky’s actual argument and evidence. Dennett doesn’t do this instead resorting to a weak just-so story:


“What’s more, we could plausibly conjecture that Merge itself was no fortuitous giant step, no saltation in design, but a gradual development out of more concrete versions of Merge that can be seen in the manipulations of children (and adults) today: put block on block; use your big hammer stone to make a smaller hammer stone; put berry pile in bigger pile, put bigger pile in still bigger pile; put pie in cup in bowl in bag, and so forth. But are any of these processes real recursion? That is a misguided question, like the question: are the hominins real Homo sapiens? We know that gradual transitions are the rule in evolution, and a gradual emergence of (something like) real recursion-real enough for natural language would be a fine stepping stone, if we could identify it ( ibid pp. 279-280)


And then offering rhetoric:


“And notice that if something like Merge eventually proves to be a hard-wired operation in human brains, as Chomsky proposes, it wouldn’t then be a skyhook. That is, it wouldn’t be the result of a chance mutation that, by cosmic accident, happened to give our ancestors an amazing new talent. The idea that a random mutation can transform a species in one fell swoop is not a remotely credible just so story; it has more in common with comic book fantasies like the Incredible Hulk and all the other action heroes whose encounters with accidents grant them superpowers” (ibid p. 280)


Dennett is here engaging in nothing more than rhetoric and ignoring Chomsky’s actual arguments.


A further problem with Dennett is that while he is dismissing Chomsky’s views on the evolution of language (with little evidence) he sits on the fence on whether Chomsky’s proposed theory on the nature of language is correct:


I am not taking sides in the controversies, even where I have convictions; I have more than enough to defend without defending how much bias, how much “Universal Grammar,” as the Chomskyans say, must be genetically installed in the “Language Acquisition Device” nor do I stipulate in any way what form this biasing must or might take. One way or another, without deliberate (let alone conscious) theory construction of any kind, the infant homes in on habits that it will share with its parents, responding sensitively to  semantic information present to its senses.” (ibid p. 194 )


Dennett’s approach here is simply wrong; one cannot abstract from which theory of the nature of language  is true when you are sketching a theory of how language evolved. Noam Chomsky has long argued that any theory of the evolution of language will need to be informed about what language actually is. It is pointless in speculating about how language evolved without understanding the nature of language itself. Chomsky is surely right about this. Any theorist goes into a discussion of the evolution of language with a theory about what the nature of language is. A false theory about the nature of language may send one down a wrong path trying to discover how it evolved. Thus if you think that a key feature of language is that it is an internal computational procedure used for thinking primarily, or if you think that language is primarily a shared system symbols used to communicate meanings; these different theories about the nature and function will have serious effects on how you will understand what the archaeology is telling you about the nature of language. Thus  if we consider some facts about the evolution of our ancestors we will see how these facts will appear depending on the theory of language one accepts. In his (2016) ‘Grammar Came Later’ Dan Everett notes some key facts about our evolutionary history. Over 6 million years ago a new type of ape arrived on earth, this bipedal ape was called Australopithecus. According to Everett (2016) Australopithecus could recognise iconicity. To support the claim that they recognise iconicity Everett points out that they collected pebbles, he cites the example  Makpansgat Manuport pebble 3million years old which was an icon shaped like a face collected by Australopithecus. Everett goes on to note that up to  2.7 million years ago we have evidence of an icon shaped like an phallus called the Erfoud Manuport. Aside from our use of icons Homo Erectus was using crude Oldowan tools at 2.6 million years ago (Everett 2016).


            Now obviously for someone like Everett who thinks that the evolution of symbols is the key factor in the evolution of language these facts will be pure gold. Everett following Peirce notes that the movement from index to icon to symbol is one of the key features of our linguistic capacities. So the fact that Australopithecus was using icons 3 million years is clear evidence that our ancestors were starting on a process of developing a language 3 million years ago. Though obviously the use of an icon is not a linguistic practice but it is evidence of cognitive capacities which may have offered an entering wedge into language. However for a Chomskian who defines a language as the ability to use merge; language is an all or nothing capacity. So a Chomskian will be less than impressed with these empirical details and will believe that they are irrelevant to the details of what Chomsky thinks of as the key feature of language: Merge. We can see from the different ways that Everett and Chomsky treat archaeological details that your evolutionary theory of language is deeply connected to the theory you hold about the nature of language. Dennett being vague in his theory of how language evolved be an untended result of his not taking sides on debates on the nature of language.


Overall while Dennett’s discussion of plausible candidates for a naturalistic explanation of language explanation was interesting he left too much detail out. His competence without comprehension thinking tool is useful as a way of reminding linguists to not just assume that complex behaviours Must be evidence of comprehension. However his treatment of Chomsky was much too cursory to be of any real value.



Quine: Emotions and Death

“When one is alone and it is night and so dark and still that one hears nothing and sees nothing but…the slow irresistible approach of the wall of darkness which will eventually engulf everything you love, possess, wish, strive, and hope for-then all our profoundities about life slink off to some undiscoverable hiding place, and [dread] envelops the sleepless one like a smothering blanket ( C.G. Jung)[1]

In this short paper I will discuss Quine’s life, as described in his autobiography, what his description of his life revealed about his psychological attitude; and speculate about how his psychology may have influenced his philosophical outlook. To do this I will demonstrate how key facts about Quine’s life as described in his biography are mirrored in his philosophical system. In particular it will be shown that Quine’s inability to deal with emotions were mirrored by a strange avoidance of any real dealing with emotions in his philosophical theorising.

One notable fact about Quine that becomes apparent when reading his autobiography is his persistent narrow obsessions in things like stamp collecting, and map making when he was younger. This behaviour continued throughout his life as evidenced by his travels which seemed more about ticking off that he had been to a new country rather than something to enjoy for its own sake. Quine even admitted as much:

“I detect two deep traits which the reader will already have divined from my compulsion in childhood to compile, from my preoccupation with political boundaries, from my early collecting of stamps, and later collection of countries, and from my professional concern for mathematical elegance: namely I am orderly, and I am frugal” (Quine: The Time of My Life p. 476)

Another notable feature of Quine’s psychology was the difficulty that he had with dealing with intense negative emotions:

It was settled that Naomi would come to Harvard with me and we would marry. Nothing was said to my parents on the point. This was not from fear of disapproval, but from diffidence over matters of sentiment. Actually I was not eager for the marriage. At one point sitting with Naomi in a car in Portage Path, I even ventured to voice my doubts, but a stronger will prevailed. I tend to shy away from present emotional stress and tend not to consider what stresses the future may bring.” (Quine: The Time of My Life p. 74)

“This book has mainly been a factual account of external things and events as they have impinged on me and I in my faltering way on them. A perceptive reader may, however, have gained from these indices a clearer picture of my drives and character than I myself enjoy; for I have little bent for soul searching. This deficiency was evident in the way I brought peace of mind in 1930 and 1944 at the price of subsequent misery. My way of coping with spells of nostalgia, loneliness, anxiety or boredom over the years has been to escape into my projects. ( Quine ‘The Time of my Life’ p. 475)

While it is not unusual for a person to avoid emotional stressors where possible Quine’s avoidance of negative emotions bordered on the pathological. To marry someone you don’t want to marry as a way of avoiding a difficult talk; indicates that Quine had extreme difficulties in handling emotional stress. It is notable that Quine’s way of dealing with emotions was to avoid the stressful encounters at all costs and to throw himself into his projects. This fact indicates that Quine’s early collecting of stamps, and making of maps may have been a way that he had of coping with childhood trauma. Keeping himself busy on analytic tasks may have helped him deal with aspects of his life that he couldn’t cope with.

This way of coping with stress by throwing oneself into busy work to avoid dealing with trauma is well known clinically. Both existentialists and psychotherapists have discussed this way of coping in detail. Psychoanalyst and Heidegger Scholar Robert Stolorow described this approach as follows:

…Heidegger also uses the term falling to denote a motivated, defensive, tranquilizing flight into inauthentic illusions of the “they” in order to evade the anxiety and uncanniness inherent in authentic Being-toward-death. As I noted in Chapter 4, Heidegger’s discussions of such retreats from existential anxiety closely resemble clinical descriptions of the covering over of traumatized states.” (Robert Stolorow ‘World, Affectivity, Trauma’ p. 84)

Quine’s behaviour throughout his life filling his time up with busy work and aimless moving from place to place could be construed as a way of avoiding emotional suffering and anxiety at all costs. We know from his autobiography that Quine suffered from Anxiety around the time of his divorce and that saw a psychoanalyst for this anxiety. In his autobiography Quine doesn’t go into great detail on the nature of his anxiety nor on why the psychoanalysis was unsuccessful. One of the primary aims of psychoanalysis is to discover how early trauma and relations establish patterns in childhood that unconsciously effect the behaviour of people into their adulthood. Quine who by his own admission tried to avoid any real contact with emotions may have found a process of undergoing psychoanalysis and dragging up intense emotions extremely uncomfortable; cognitive behavioural therapy invented a few years later may have suited Quine’s temperament better. However since Quine didn’t give any indication as to why the psychoanalysis was ineffective it is hard to say for sure why it didn’t work for him. An example of Quine’s aversion to even speaking about emotions was in his description of his first wife Naomi he notes that she was prone to mood swings and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Bi-polar disorder can have a devastating effect on the family of those diagnosed with it as well of those suffering on it. But Quine just vaguely mentions the mood swings and moves on to describe his travels in a dispassionate manner. Obviously no thinker is obliged to describe personal matters in their autobiography; the detail they go into is their own choice. Nonetheless for a reader wanting to know about his life Quine’s brief mention of his emotional experiences being instantly turned into a description of further travels is very strange. Now it is possible that as a committed behaviourist Quine was just writing his book in the externalist manner that his philosophical theories legislated. However it is notable that Quine’s behaviour in his description of his wife’s bi-polar disorder is in keeping with his overall attitude to something with real emotional punch; to move away quickly, and throw himself into busy work, in Quine’s case dispassionately describing places that he had been.

Quine’s attitude to deep emotions can even be seen with his views on poetry. Quine notes:

I am deeply moved by occasional passages of poetry, and so, characteristically, I read little of it. I respond similarly to passages of grand opera, and this is due to the liberto as much as to the music. Otherwise I have a poor memory for fiction, for it resists integration to my system of the world” ( Quine: The Time of My Life p. 476)

Again we see Quine’s attitude towards emotions very clearly; if something evinces strong emotions, it is to be avoided.

Even in Quine’s theoretical work spanning over 60 years he manages to avoid any serious engagement with emotions. Now to some degree this is to be expected Quine’s work on the mathematical logic and set theory is hardly an area congenial to reflecting on emotions. But Quine’s work on naturalised epistemology, on how we go from stimulus to science is an area where one would expect to find some reflection on emotions. Quine did discuss emotions at various different points of his career. Early in his career when lecturing on Hume he briefly discussed Hume’s claim that reason is the slave of the passions. However Quine added little to Hume’s claims on the topic as his primary role was as an expositor of Hume’s ideas. Later in his career he argued that the emotions should be thought of along the lines of sensations (see his The Pursuit of Truth p. 86) and that these sensations should be thought of  as propensities of the human body that could be cashed out in dispositional terms (see ‘Quine in Dialogue’ p. 8). Again we can see that the subjective feeling of the emotion is pushed to the background and it’s physical status and behavioural manifestations are noted. Obviously Quine has to argue in this manner because of his physicalism and his behavioural commitments but it is worth noting that his theoretical attitude to emotions is the same as his attitude in his lived experience; avoid them at all costs and at the very least minimise their impact.

One area where Quine did discuss emotion and it’s psychological manifestation was in his later writing on the Indeterminacy of translation. In his two last books ‘From Stimulus to Science’ and ‘The Pursuit of Truth’ Quine gave empathy a key role in both the child learning his first language and the linguist learning a language of an unknown tribe:

“Empathy dominates the learning of language, both by child and by field linguist. In the child’s case it is the parent’s empathy. The parent assesses the appropriateness of the child’s observation sentence by noting the child’s orientation and how the scene would look from there. In the field linguist’s case it is empathy on his own part when he makes his first conjecture about ‘Gavagai’ for the native’s assent in a promising subsequent situation. We all have an uncanny knack for empathizing another’s perceptual situation, however ignorant of the physiological or optical mechanism of his perception…Empathy guides the linguist still as he rises above observation sentences through his analytical hypotheses, though there he is trying to project onto the natives associations and grammatical trends rather than his perceptions. And much is true of the growing child.” ( Quine: ‘The Pursuit of Truth pp.43-44)

Quine’s discussion of empathy is important as it does seem to be a necessary tool in the child his parents and others in the intersubjective sphere where they can communicate with each other about their shared feelings and their shared world. But Quine’s attitude to this topic was strangely tepid. Emotions play little role in helping child learn about their world; for Quine basic empathy is necessary for the child and adult to triangulate on shared objects of experience but there any discussion of emotion ends. Quine was familiar with the work of people like Piaget on children’s relation to their world and he even expressed admiration for Piaget. However Quine’s description of children avoids any discussion of strong emotions or feelings. This is a big oversight on Quine’s part. We know how intertwined with our emotions are with our cognitive apparatus ( see James 1992, Hurley et al 2011, and Damasio 1994). Obviously Quine didn’t have any access to our contemporary knowledge of the relation between emotion and cognition. Nonetheless as a theorist discussing how a child goes from stimulus to science his not discussing the role of emotions in any detail (even to just explain them away) was extremely strange. This fact cannot be just explained in terms of Quine being a behaviourist. Firstly Quine didn’t deny that sensations, emotions existed; he just argued that they could be cashed out in physicalistic terms. But Quine never discussed what role our emotions played in us developing our theory of the world. Yet Quine went out of his way to explain intentional locutions could be explained away (and the degree that they couldn’t be avoided). Why the asymmetry between how Quine treated emotional states and intentional states. My conjecture is that Quine’s discomfort with dealing with strong emotions in his own life led him to minimize their role in his theoretical study of reality.

I mentioned above that Quine’s express attitude towards emotion was similar to the views which Heidegger critiqued in his ‘Being and Time’ where people immerse themselves in busy work to avoid their relation to anxiety and death. Ironically Quine and Heidegger’s projects have some areas of commonality in that both emphasise the non-Cartesian notion of embeddedness in our environment and our intersubjective ways of dealing with and understanding reality. But despite these areas of commonality there are clear differences between Quine and Heidegger; notably that you won’t find Quine brooding on death, anxiety, and authenticity. It is a legitimate question as to why Quine doesn’t deal with these issues. Quine is a naturalist; who accepts the truth of the proposition that all humans are mortal and hence all humans will eventually die. He noted in his biography that he stopped believing in God and morality at the age of nine.  Quine would presumably been cognisant of the fact that as language using thinking creatures, humans would be aware that they would eventually die and would have an attitude towards this fact. Yet Quine rarely discusses the concept of death in his philosophy. This fact may seem unsurprising given Quine’s philosophical influences and the tradition he was working in. The tradition that Quine worked in involving logical analysis of language etc wasn’t exactly a tradition known for emphasising death. Nonetheless being from the analytic tradition didn’t stop philosophers like Russell, Ayer and Wittgenstein discussing their attitudes towards death. Russell in particular was very articulate when discussing the tragedy of death. Quine on the other hand avoids the issue. By avoiding the issue he avoids the anxious thoughts that can go with reflecting on your death and the death of loved ones; and of course avoids any strong emotional feelings. Death and the limits it imposes on us all has real consequences for how we go from stimulus to science; all our projects for dealing with the world are formed against the background of the limits posed on us by our finite nature. Quine along with Wittgenstein was responsible for breaking with the Cartesian tradition in analytic philosophy of noting our embeddedness in the world and the contingent ways we have of dealing with this world. But his almost pathological avoidance of emotions meant that his philosophical adventure left out half of the picture of how we manage to develop into who we are.

[1] The Jung quote was taken from Robert Stolorow’s ‘World, Affectivity, Trauma’ p. 35



Dehaene begins his discussion of the unconscious with a critique of Freud’s conception of the unconscious. Dehaene notes that despite Freud’s claims to originality in his discovery of the unconscious it was actually discovered years before Freud. Upon hearing this one probably assumes that Dehaene goes on to discuss Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s work which refers to unconscious emotional drives which unknown to us govern our so called rational conscious behaviour. Schopenhauer’s unconscious ‘will to live’ and Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’  bear a close resemblance to Freud’s unconscious as they involve emotional drives which we are not aware of influencing our conscious behaviour. However, Dehaene doesn’t mention either Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, and he goes on to give an idiosyncratic list of people who discovered unconscious processes, all the while collapsing a lot of important conceptual distinctions.

The unconscious as Freud understood it was intended to refer to unconscious mentalistic processes. Freud didn’t deny that there were bodily processes that we had no knowledge of; and nor did most theorists prior to Freud. Dehaene takes this fact as a kind of refutation of Freud’s originality but the examples that Dehaene gives are examples of non-conscious processes. Thus Dehaene gives the example of Galen noting almost two thousand years ago that our breathing and our ability to walk is not under our conscious control. Now Galen was obviously correct on this point; but it doesn’t really speak to Freud’s concerns. Freud was concerned with unconscious mental states, not with bodily processes which we have no conscious control of. Cell division in the body is not under conscious control but it would be very strange to speak of the body unconsciously dividing cells; rather we would call cell division a non-conscious process. When Dehaene speaks of Hall’s discovery of reflex arcs linking sensory inputs to motor outputs, and our movements originating in our spinal cord (which we have no conscious control over), or Galen’s comments on breathing, he is not showing that Freud was anticipated by these thinkers. Rather Dehaene is merely confusing non-conscious bodily processes with Freud’s mentalistic unconscious. This fact can be seen by the fact that Dehaene even argues that Descartes anticipated Freud in postulating the existence of the unconscious. Descartes is famous in philosophy for denying that unconscious mental states were possible; for Descartes the mind was synonymous with consciousness. Dehaene doesn’t offer much to defend his idiosyncratic interpretation of Descartes; he merely states that Descartes noted that “human actions are driven by a broad array of mechanisms that are inaccessible to introspection, from unconscious motivations to hidden desires” (Consciousness and the Brain p. 51). Dehaene didn’t cite any sources to support his claims about Descartes, which is very strange given the extremely controversial claim he is making. Dehaene is right that Descartes was aware that our body (including the brain) operates according to mechanical principles that we are not aware of. But these non-conscious facts are of an entirely different logical order than the unconscious mental states Freud was concerned with. I am unaware of any textual evidence that Descartes argued for unconscious desires, or motivations of the Freudian kind as Dehaene claimed. I would be interested in any evidence that support’s Dehaene’s claim that Descartes believed in unconscious motivations and desires. But in absence of such evidence I will stick with the standard interpretation of Descartes that he eschewed any talk of unconscious mental processes. Descartes equated consciousness with the ego and the ‘I think’ and argued that it was the conscious mind that controlled the non-conscious body (via the Pineal gland), and not vice versa. So Dehane’s claims about Descartes, Galen et al prefiguring Freud on the issue of the unconscious do not stand up to critical scrutiny.

Dehaene intellectual history doesn’t get it all wrong, he notes that thinkers like Leibniz, Janet, and James to some degree beat Freud to the punch. Leibniz deserves credit for being the first theorist to explicitly argue for unconscious mental processes. This quote from Leibniz in 1704 shows his explicit views on unconscious perception:

“There are hundreds of indications leading us to conclude that at every moment there is in us an infinity of perceptions, unaccompanied by awareness or reflection; that is, of alterations in the soul itself, of which we are unaware because the impressions are either too minute or too numerous, or else too unvarying, so that they are not sufficiently distinctive on their own. But when they are combined with others they do nevertheless have their effect and make themselves felt, at least confusedly within the whole. (Leibniz: New Essays on Human Understanding p. 53)

Leibniz’s unconscious was a mental unconscious and one that prefigured that of Freud by a couple of hundred years, while the non-conscious processes that Descartes, Galen et al discovered had little relation to Freud’s unconscious.

While Dehaene is guilty of confusing unconscious mental states with non-conscious processes such as cell division occurring in the body; it is important to make a further division between the Freudian Unconscious and the Cognitive Unconscious. Both cognitive scientists and psychoanalysts speak of unconscious processes. But in cognitive science the emphasis is less on feelings governing our behaviour that we are not aware of, rather the emphasis is on computational processes that make certain cognitive capacities possible. Thus in areas like perception and language acquisition these capacities are explained interms of computational processes that the brain uses but which we are entirely unconscious of. These computational processes are supposed to be aspects of the mind/brain but we have no conscious awareness of the structure of these cognitive competencies, the structure can only be discovered through detailed scientific research.

There is an ambiguity in how these unconscious cognitive processes are to be interpreted. We saw above that many theorists pre-Freud spoke about non-conscious bodily processes and we discussed how these processes differed from Freud’s mental unconscious. The next question we need to ask is how does the cognitive unconscious relate to the both non-conscious bodily processes and Freud’s mentalistic unconscious?

Given that these unconscious computational processes are supposedly part of our general cognitive structures; then one could argue that despite their different natures the Freudian unconscious is aiming at the same target as the cognitive unconscious, both theories are indirectly describing brain processes. On this view, a possible aim for science could be to integrate cognitive science with the findings of contemporary psychoanalysis. In his 2009 book ‘Freudian Unconscious and Cognitive Neuroscience’ psychoanalyst Vesa Talvite attempts such an integration, and in the process argues that certain tenants of psychoanalysis (in particular the idea of a mentalistic unconscious), will have to be rescinded. Talvite based his conclusion on an argument by philosopher John Searle in his 1992 book ‘The Rediscovery of the Mind’. In that book Searle argued against the existence of the mentalistic unconscious, and Talvite notes that if psychoanalysis is to be integrated with cognitive science then as a result of Searle’s arguments psychoanalysts need to drop the idea of a mentalistic unconscious. What Talvite failed to notice is that Searle’s arguments actually call as much doubt into the existence of the cognitive unconscious as they do on the Freudian unconscious.

In Searle’s 2015 book ‘Seeing Things As They Are’ he has further developed his arguments on the nature of the unconscious. Part of Searle’s reason for discussing unconscious perception is that he thinks that the concept is used to down play the importance of consciousness in our interaction with the world. Searle notes that three phenomena which are sometimes appealed to as a way of undermining the importance of consciousness are (1) Blindsight, (2) Readiness Potential, and (3) Reflexes. Searle notes that while readiness potential and reflexes are very important in making perception possible these processes are not unconscious processes rather they are non-conscious processes like, for example, cell division. He argues that in order for these processes to be counted as conscious they would need to be the type of thing that could be made conscious. Searle makes the following point about unconscious processes:

“There is a level of intentionality, indeed several levels, and there is a level of the neurobiological realisation of the intentionality, indeed, several levels; but there is no psychologically real, but unconscious level of algorithmic processing. The idea is that these mental processes in the intermediate level are supposed to be psychologically real, though totally unconscious. They are not the sort of thing that one could be conscious of, but they provide a scientific explanation of operation of the visual system. No clear sense has been given to the notion that there is any psychological reality to the level of computer implementation…The argument against there being a psychologically real level of the deep unconscious is simply that any intentionality requires aspectual shape…representation is always under some aspect or other. But what is the reality of the aspectual shape when the system is totally unconscious? What is the difference between the unconscious desire for water and the unconscious desire for H2O, both of which may be psychologically real? An Agent might not know that water is H2O, he might mistakenly believe that H2O is something disgusting and want water but not H2O. What fact about him when he is totally unconscious makes him have one desire over the other? ( Searle: ‘Seeing things as they are’ pp. 204-205)

Searle’s argument goes against the grain of both the Freudian unconscious and the Cognitive unconscious he is arguing that both theories are incorrect in postulating deep unconscious processes that cannot be made conscious. Searle thinks that once we see that our perception is made possible by non-conscious processes as opposed to unconscious ones we will see the importance of consciousness. There is nothing psychological about our nonconscious bodily processes, so while they clearly make possible our conscious perceptions they are not in a position to undermine the importance of the conscious act of seeing.

This argument has clear consequences for both cognitive science and psychoanalysis so it needs to be evaluated very closely. Firstly it should be noted that Searle is not denying the existence of unconscious mentality; he has no problem with what Freud would call the subconscious. Something that is subconscious is something that we are not currently conscious of but we can bring to awareness if need be. Thus a person may not be currently thinking of their dogs name but if asked they can access the relevant information. Searle has no problem with this type of unconscious. Where Searle has a difficulty is with supposed unconscious knowledge that we are incapable in principle of accessing. Chomsky has long been a defender of this type of unconscious knowledge:

“There is no reason to suppose that we have any privileged access to the principles that enter into our knowledge and use of language, that determine the form and meaning of sentences or the conditions of their use or that relate the “mental organ” of language to other cognitive systems” (Chomsky: ‘Language and Unconscious Knowledge’ p.244)

Chomsky’s claim that the principles that govern our knowledge and use of language are entirely unconscious is precisely the claim that Searle rejects as simply incoherent.

One of the key problems that Searle has with the picture sketched by people like Chomsky, and Marr is their three sphere explanation of things like vision and language. Marr is generally credited with making this three sphere view explicit in his 1982 book ‘Vision’. In ‘Vision’ Marr noted that there were three levels of explanation (1) The Neurobiological, (2) The Computational, and (3) the psychological.  Searle has no problem with either 1 or 3 but he has serious difficulties with 2; from Searle’s perspective a computational level which is not intentionalistic, nor neurobiological, but is still supposedly mentalistic is incoherent. Searle sees no reason to have any level beyond the neurological and the psychological. This is not merely an argument against the computational theory of the mind it is an argument against unconscious computational processes. Searle thinks that the only real computation is the conscious computation that emerges when a person is actually calculating. So he denies that a computer actually uses computation and he denies that the brains do as well. Searle distinguishes between what he calls intrinsic intentionality and derived intentionality. On Searle’s view humans and other animals are the bearers of intrinsic intentionality, now while it is possible to describe brains, the digestive system, or thermostats as computational devices such descriptions are observer relative (hence non-intrinsic). Searle thinks that describing certain devices as computational may be pragmatically useful but it should be remembered that such devices don’t actually use computation (the computation is in the eye of the observer i.e. the human interpreting the device).

So for Searle, except in the case of creatures with intrinsic intentionality actually doing conscious calculations, there is no computation in the world other than observer relative computation. The obvious question is what does this argument have to do with the unconscious (of either the cognitive or Freudian variety)? Well in the case of the cognitive unconscious the link is pretty obvious. If we consider language acquisition; according to cognitive scientists like Chomsky we acquire our language because of innate computational mechanisms that we use to organise our experiences. These computational mechanisms are unconscious. For Searle while we can describe the brain as using computational mechanisms for certain theoretical purposes this description is observer relative. Take away the scientific observers making these attributions and it makes no sense to say that children’s brains are using computational devices.

Now a critic of Searle could claim that when Searle argues against the idea of unconscious computation this amounts to nothing more than a bizarre decision to use the word ‘computation’ in an idiosyncratic manner. This critic could further argue that attacking the foundations of cognitive science on the basis of a stipulation as to how a word must be used is not very convincing.

Searle however offers more than just an idiosyncratic definition of the word ‘computation’ he also offers an argument as to why computation cannot be unconscious. We will call this argument The Aspectual Argument. Searle asks us to consider the following case: (1) It is claimed that John unconsciously desires Water. (2) Water and H2O pick out the same objects. Therefore (3) If John unconsciously desires Water he Unconsciously desires H20. But (4) John doesn’t know that Water = H20 in fact John thinks that H20 isn’t a pleasant substance but that Water is. Therefore (5) John doesn’t unconsciously desire H20 even though he does unconsciously desire Water. So we can see from the above argument that (3) and (5) contradict each other.

Searle claims that the above is not a problem if we are talking about subconscious knowledge. Thus in the case of subconscious knowledge that can be brought to conscious awareness we can question John. Thus John can discover that he was thirsty through various different behavioural measures; e.g. people pointing out that his is licking his lips, that he appears to be dehydrated, that John keeps looking longingly at a glass of water on the table. Upon this being pointed out to John he agrees that unknown to himself he was thirsty and he can drink the water and to quench the thirst. Now John can be further asked if he knows that Water and H2O referred to the same thing and suppose he replies that no he believed that H20 actually referred to Oil. So based on this simple behavioural procedure we can conclude that while John unconsciously desired water he didn’t unconsciously desire H20. But in terms of the deep unconscious that can never be brought to awareness things are different. If we attribute to John the unconscious desire to drink water and since water refers to H2O we must be attributing to John the unconscious desire to drink H20. Since John is in no position to comment on what he is entirely unconscious of, his explicit claim that he doesn’t believe that H20 and Water are synonymous is not a defeater of the claim about his unconscious desire. And since explicit conscious beliefs are not defeaters of attributions of unconscious knowledge then a claim that John unconsciously desires is water doesn’t distinguish between whether this desire commits John to the unconscious desire for H20.

Readers will of course recognise this form of argument as it has been used by Donald Davidson as a way of casting doubt on attributing beliefs to non-linguistic animals. Davidson argues that when we quantify into belief contexts for linguistic creatures we can run into referential opacity. Thus (1) ‘Superman is the most powerful man in the universe’ is true and Clark Kent = Superman, then (2) ‘Clark Kent is the most powerful man in the universe’ is true as well. However assume that 3 is true: (3) ‘John believes ‘Superman is the most powerful man in the universe’’. Now again Superman = Clark Kent. But that doesn’t make 4 true: (4) ‘John believes ‘Clark Kent is the most powerful man in the universe’. The reason obviously is that John may believe x about Superman and not believe x about Clark Kent because he is unaware that they are the same person.

Davidson noticed a logical problem in the case of attributing beliefs to non-linguistic animals. Attributing beliefs to non-linguistic animals results in different logical behaviour than attributing beliefs to linguistic creatures does. Thus while referential opacity occurs in the linguistic creature case it doesn’t occur in the non-linguistic creature case. So, Davidson asks us to think of a case of a dog chasing a cat up a tree. The dog is barking at the cat. But Davidson notes are we justified in saying (1) The Dog believes ‘the cat is up the tree’, (2) The Dog believes ‘the cat is up the tallest tree in the forest’ (3) The Dog believes ‘The cat is up an Oak etc. Davidson’s point is that we have no evidence to decide what the Dog believes in this case and hence referential opacity that occurs in the case of linguistic believers doesn’t occur when we attribute beliefs to non-linguistic creatures.

Now this is a pretty strong argument for a logical point. Davidson uses this argument to cast serious doubt on whether we are justified in attributing beliefs to animals. Searle uses a similar argument in the unconscious cases with just as dramatic results; the claim that we are not justified in attributing unconscious computational states to people. Interestingly, while Searle uses an argument from referential opacity to argue against unconscious mentality; he has never accepted Davidson’s views animals. In his book ‘Intentionality’ Searle notes:

“…It seems to me obvious that infants and many animals that do not in any ordinary sense have a language or perform speech acts nonetheless have Intentional states. Only someone in the grip of a philosophical theory would deny that small babies can literally be said to want milk and that dogs want to be let out and believe that their master is at the door. There are, incidentally, two reasons to why we find it irresistible to attribute Intentionality to animals even though they do not have a language. First, we can see that the causal basis of the animal’s intentionality is very much like our own, e.g., these are the dog’s eyes, this is his skin, those are his ears, etc. Second we cannot make sense of his behaviour otherwise.” ( Searle: Intentionality p.5)

Searle’s acceptance of the referential opacity argument in the case of unconscious knowledge is at odds with his rejection of it in the case of attributing beliefs to animals. Furthermore the reasons that Searle gives in arguing for animal beliefs are good reasons when applied to the case of unconscious knowledge. So if we attribute to a person an unconscious dislike of their mother we may do so because they behave towards that person in ways consistent with this attitude (though they may consciously deny that this is the case). So this attribution involves similar causal explanations that we use when we attribute a desire/belief to the dog. Likewise unconscious mentalistic explanations are precisely appealed to in cases where otherwise the person’s behaviour is inexplicable. So Searle’s two reasons for attributing beliefs to non-linguistic animals can be used just as easily in the case of unconscious knowledge.

I find neither Searle’s aspectual argument nor the logically similar argument of Davidson very convincing. In both cases we are presented with a scenario where it is not determinate whether an animal believes x or extensionally equivalent alternatives or whether a person unconsciously believes x or extensionally equivalent alternatives. This creates an ambiguity that can affect our interpretations of the subjects understudy. The Davidson/Searle reaction to this ambiguity is to cast a doubt on the psychological reality of the subject understudy. However, a logical argument revealing more ambiguity in our interpretations than expected isn’t sufficient to decide a priori whether non-linguistic animals can have beliefs (Searle of course recognises this). Neither is it sufficient to refute an entire discipline like cognitive science, psychoanalysis and computational neuroscience. I think Searle’s principle that if we have no other theory that can explain the behaviour of a creature than attributing beliefs is an excellent principle and the principle holds in the area of unconscious beliefs.

A nice example of a person seemingly unconsciously thinking is the subject of blind-sight. Searle discussed blind-sight in his recent book ‘Seeing Things as They Are’. He argues that an appeal to blind-sight to undermine the importance of consciousness is not very convincing as blind-sight is such a peripheral aspect of perception. He notes that a person couldn’t drive a car when suffering from blind-sight So, Searle argues that given how limited the effects of blind-sight are there is no reason to think that it undermines the importance of conscious experience in daily life. Now I have no interest in undermining the importance of conscious experience but I think that Searle is here guilty of underestimating the types of blind-sight that exist. Dehaene’s also discusses blind-sight and his discussion Dehaene’s discussion of blind-sight while doing nothing to refute Searle’s claim that blind-sight patients could not drive a car, does paint a more complex picture than Searle’s story. For example Dehaene mentions a patient of psychologist Melvyn Goodale, the patient called D.F suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning and as a result of a lack of oxygen suffered from brain damage in her left and right lateral visual cortexes. As a result of the brain damage D.F. ended up blind when it came to recognising shapes, nonetheless she still maintained some motor control when it came to manipulating shapes. As Dehaene describes her surprising abilities:

“Her motor system always seemed to unconsciously “see” things better than she could consciously. She also adapted the size of her grasp to the objects she reached for- yet she was utterly unable to do so voluntarily, using the finger to thumb distance as a symbolic gesture for perceived size.

       D.F.’s unconscious ability to perform motor actions seemed to vastly exceed her capacity for consciously perceiving the same visual shapes…Although D.F. was unaware of it, information about the size and orientation of objects was still proceeding unconsciously down her occipital and parietal lobes. There, intact circuits extracted visual information about size, location, and even shape that she could not consciously see.” ( Dehaene ‘Consciousness and the Brain’ p. 55)

This ability to perform complex motor activities while not conscious is obviously not at the level of someone with blind-sight driving a car; still the capacities are more complex that Searle’s simple examples indicate. Dehaene even argues that some people with blind-sight are capable of navigating their way through busy corridors (ibid p.55), though he presents no references to verify the truth of this claim. Either way it is clear that blind-sight doesn’t just occur in the simple manner that Searle indicates. Searle just argues that it is obvious that his Dog knows when he is at the door, that his dog is indicating that he is hungry. This argument is a simple inference to the best explanation that Searle has arrived at based on the predictive accuracy of using folk psychological locutions to describe the dogs behaviour. It is pretty obvious that when neuroscientists like Dehaene are trying to explain the behaviour of patients like D.F., by saying she is unconsciously computing information to compute the shape of objects, and they way they should be turned; they are engaging in an inference to best explanation and one that can be modelled in scientifically useful ways. Searle aspectual argument does little to challenge these scientific models.

Overall Searle’s arguments against the Freudian and the Cognitive unconscious are pretty unconvincing. Searle himself doesn’t accept similar arguments when applied towards attributions of knowledge to babies or dogs. Searle uses inference to the best explanation arguments when attributing intentional states to dogs and non-linguistic babies; so there is little reason why he should ban similar inferences to the best explanations in the case of positing unconscious mental states.

So psychoanalysts like Talvite need not worry about Searle’s a-priori argument having demonstrated that the mentalistic unconscious in incoherent. Searle’s argument neither refutes the psychoanalytic unconscious, nor does it refute the Freudian Unconscious. Whether a bridge can be found between psychoanalysis and cognitive science is a different question; and is beyond the remit of this paper. What is certain is that if such projects are to be tried greater care is needed than was given by Dehaene in his caricature of Freud.