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.

Everett, Quine and Translation in the Field

Abstract: Dan Everett’s attempts to refute Quine’s Indeterminacy of Translation argument are marred by misunderstanding the nature of Quine’s project. Everett’s examples of the Indeterminacy of Translation are of a different logical type than Quine’s examples. For this reason Everett’s arguments against Quine are aiming at the wrong target. Furthermore Everett’s attempts to overcome the Indeterminacy of Translation by appeal to innate perceptual constants is at odds with the overall thesis of his book which argues against appealing to innate apparatus unless you have an adequate evolutionary account of how these innate apparatus evolved. It will be demonstrated that Everett is guilty of inconsistency in the sceptical approach he takes postulations of things like a language instinct, a morality instinct etc and the casual manner in which he argues for innate perceptual constants.

Key words: Indeterminacy of Translation, Inscrutability of Reference, Innateness.


In his 2016 book ‘Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious’[1], Dan Everett discussed and criticised Quine’s Indeterminacy of Translation Argument[2]. Quine’s IDT has spawned a large literature in both scientific circles and philosophical circles. In scientific circles the IDT has typically been used as a tool to motivate nativism about concepts. Thus cognitive scientists typically (see Pinker 1995, Markman 1989 etc), relocate the problem of radical translation into a problem of underdetermination facing the child as he learns his first language. They argue that this underdetermination is overcome because of innate constraints that limit the type of interpretation that children can make to sensory experience as they interact with others and the world. One difficulty of this approach is that (1) Assuming the existence of innate constraints is question-begging against Quine’s position (2) Even if such constraints did exist they would not necessarily rule out the IDT unless it could be guaranteed that these constraints ruled out conceptual change in adults[3] (King, 2016a). Everett’s discussion of the IDT however is different than the standard treatment in cognitive science because his discussion centres on actual linguistic practice in translating foreign languages in the field.

To some degree Everett agrees with Quine that language involves a certain amount of indeterminacy. He argues that a complete translation between two languages is never possible because of different background assumptions (sometimes ineffable), which the two languages will have. He calls these background assumptions our Dark Matter and defines them as follows:

“Dark matter of the mind is any knowledge-how or knowledge-that that is unspoken in normal circumstances, usually unarticulated even to ourselves. It may be but is not necessarily, ineffable. It emerges from acting, “languaging” and “culturing” as we learn new conventions and knowledge organization, and adopt value properties and orderings. It is shared and it is personal. It comes via emicization, apperceptions, and memory and thereby produces our sense of “self”. ( DMM p. 1)

Everett’s view of language is that it is as a cultural tool, and much of the cultural shaping of our linguistic practices is implicit, and some of it ineffable. At a cursory glance there is much that Quine and Everett have in common. Both Quine and Everett emphasise the social nature of language, both of them emphasise the importance of background beliefs in shaping our overall theory of the world (though Quine says little about ineffable knowledge), and both agree that a picture of translation involving two different languages sharing identical propositional content is wrongheaded.

Nonetheless, despite agreeing on some key issues Everett does have some difficulties with Quine’s IDT. Everett critiques Quine’s IDT based on the fact that in his many years of field work he has never come across examples that Quine mentions in his IDT. Everett notes the following:

“On the side of mistakes never made, however, Quine’s gavagai problem is one. In my field research on more than twenty languages- many of which involved monolingual situations ( D. Everett 2001; Sakel and Everett 2012), whenever I pointed at an object or asked “What’s that?” I always got an answer for an entire object. Seeing me point at a bird no one ever responded “feathers”. When asked about a manatee, no one ever answered “manatee soul. On inquiring about a child, I always got  “child”, “boy”, or “girl”, never “short hair”. (Ibid p. 267)

As a field linguist with years of experience translating other cultures languages, Everett’s views are extremely important in evaluating Quine’s radical translation thought experiment. Everett’s examples though are very different from the examples Quine gave, and the Everett’s examples crucially are not of the same logical status as Quine’s. Everett notes that every time he pointed at an object and said “what’s that?” he always got an answer that named an entire object. His first answer is that in pointing to a bird and saying “what’s that?” he never got an answer such as “feathers”. Now this is an interesting fact but it doesn’t refute Quine’s IDT. Quine acknowledges that there are many different ways a translator could go wrong in interpreting what the native he is conversing with is saying. And he discusses ways in which these mistakes could be overcome through future evidence. Thus in ‘Word and Object’ Quine discusses how even when using as precisely honed a tool as matching stimulus meanings; collateral information could result in a field linguist erroneously thinking that ‘Gavagai’ and ‘Rabbit’ were synonymous, when this is not actually the case. Quine imagines the following case:

“There may be a local rabbit-fly, unknown to the linguist, and recognizable some way off by its long wings and erratic movements; and seeing such a fly in the neighbourhood of an ill glimpsed animal could help the native to recognize the latter as a rabbit. Occular irradiations combining poor glimpses of rabbits with good ones of rabbit-flies would belong to the stimulus meaning of ‘Gavagai’ for natives generally, but not to that of ‘Rabbit’ for the linguist.” (Quine: Word and Object p. 37)

Now Quine is quick to note that even in this case the field linguist wouldn’t be fooled for too long. As the field linguist learns more and more about the language; questions more natives, interacts with them in their shared environment the linguist would overcome such mistranslations. The ‘feather’, and ‘bird’ example that Everett gives is of the same logical status as the rabbit fly example. In Everett’s exposition he speaks of himself pointing at an bird and asking “what is that?” and he notes that no native ever answered ‘feather’ instead of ‘bird’. To describe this situation in Quinean terms we need to do so in terms of how the linguist would translate what the native says when the linguist points to the bird. So suppose Everett points to a bird and the native says ‘Havagon’, based on commonsense folk-psychology Everett would surely be right to translate what the native is saying as meaning ‘bird’ and not ‘feather’. Translating what the native said as meaning ‘bird’ in this instance would presumably be verified as the field linguist interacted with more and more natives. But suppose for some strange reason the field linguist translated what the native said as meaning ‘feathers’, if this was the incorrect translation the incorrectness would be discovered pretty quickly as the word was used in various different contexts and combinations. Quine would have no difficulty with this situation which is on a par with the rabbit fly example. But of course examples like ‘rabbit fly’ and ‘feathers vs birds’ are not the cases Quine was thinking of in his IDT.

The most important aspect of Quine’s IDT is his inscrutability of reference argument[4]. Quine explicates the ISR as follows:

Does it seem that the imagined indecision between rabbits, stages of rabbits, integral parts of rabbits, the rabbit fusion, and rabbithood must be due to some general formulation of stimulus meaning, and that it should be resoluble by a little supplementary pointing and questioning? Consider, then, how. Point to a rabbit and you have pointed to a stage of a rabbit, to an integral part of a rabbit, to the rabbit fusion, and to where rabbithood manifested. Point to an integral part of a rabbit and you have pointed again to the remaining four sorts of things; and so on around.” (ibid p. 53)

Here we can see a clear difference between Everett’s example of a bird and feathers and Quine’s examples. Quine does speak of parts of a rabbit but he is speaking of integral parts. In terms of stimulus meaning of ‘birds’ and ‘feathers’, they will diverge in easily detectable ways. The native will not assent to the word ‘bird’ if the linguist is pointing to feathers on the ground or feathers in a hat. Things are different when it comes to integral parts of rabbits; given that the part is undetached, every time you point to a rabbit you are pointing to the undetached rabbit part. There is no behavioural evidence that can decide the issue. So clearly it can be seen that Quine’s examples are on a different logical level than the examples Everett uses.

When you use Quine’s actual examples and not Everett’s replacements things look very different. From a Quinean perspective the reason translators do not find the various different alternative interpretations of gavagai is because from an empirical perspective the four different interpretations of gavagai are on a par. When we are interpreting the verbal behaviour of the native our analytic hypothesis will be framed so as to assume that that they are people like us and hence we will automatically go with the assumption that gavagai means rabbit instead of undetached rabbit part, particular instance of universal rabbithood etc. But this just an assumption and it isn’t according to Quine either justified empirically or something that we can verify empirically. When Quine talks about unverifiable analytic hypotheses he is saying that there is no empirical difference between the reference of the various different translations of the term ‘gavagai’, and in order to begin to translate truth functions, observations etc the field linguist will begin by framing an analytical hypothesis and this hypothesis is not refutable by the empirical data since there is no empirical way to distinguish between the different references of the term ‘gavagai’.

When reading an early draft of Everett’s book I raised the above point with him. In his DMM he replied as follows:

“ As David King (pers. comm.) points out to me, my conclusion here regarding indeterminacy of translation could be open to criticism because it would be possible- and this seems to be what Quine had in mind- for the translator not to know that they had misunderstood, because the native speaker and translator could respond behaviourally in the same way ostensibly, but with different mental maps from experience to meaning-one person responding to rabbit parts and the other to a whole rabbit. In the field, however, this is a difference without a difference. The field researcher does not nor would not notice the problem. But of course it is entirely possible that two people can talk in translatable ways, each one of them buttressed and understanding via distinct dark matters. It is not merely possible but, if I am correct, inescapable.” (ibid p. 341)

In his reply Everett again speaks about ‘rabbits’ and ‘rabbit parts’ but of course as we have seen above Quine’s examples are of a different logical level so Everett’s reply misses to point. Everett’s comment that it is inescapable that two people could talk using different dark matters buttressing them from fully understanding each other is a very Quinian point. Quine would speak of different webs of belief buttressing understanding but this issue is tangential from the ISR. None of Everett’s arguments thus far would have overly troubled Quine.

If we abstract for a moment from Everett’s use of non-Quinian examples to criticise Quine, Everett offers a hypothesis that could conceivably be used as a way of refuting Quine. Everett offers the hypothesis:

“I believe that the absence of these Quinean answers results from the fact that when one person points towards a thing, all people (that I have worked with, at least) assume that what is being asked is the name of the entire object…Objects have a relative salience-whole objects…This is perhaps the result of evolved perception. Perhaps animals perceive wholes before parts. If we are being threatened by a wolf, we are being threatened by the entire wolf, not merely its ears its paws or teeth. And it is likely that a wolf sees a person object when looking at us. We would not last very long in the wild if we saw ears without understanding that ears are part of something else, more important than its parts, that could turn out to be a foe, friend, or food. Initial focus always seems to be on the whole. Perhaps this is to do with biological values of hunger satisfaction, self-preservation, or the like. In any case, it seems to be what happens transculturally. ( ibid p. 266)

This is a perfectly sensible suggestion by Everett, there an enormous amount of evidence that people do indeed make whole object assumptions. Scholars like Carey, Spelke, Markman have constructed many experiments which seem to demonstrate that children have innate concepts of objects and that these concepts will affect how the child will interpret what is said to them. As I discussed in detail in (King 2016a), one difficulty with this argument is that children having innate concepts doesn’t necessarily mean that those concepts cannot change as a result of cultural factors as the child develops. However a critic could argue that Everett’s experiences in transcultural translation show that the whole object assumption is a wide phenomenon. And therefore they could combine Everett’s data with the data from psychologists like Carey to demonstrate that innate constraints on concepts are maintained throughout the life time and occur in all cultures studied demonstrating that Quine’s IDT is false.

But this approach obviously won’t work for a number of reasons. The most obvious reason is because as we have already seen Everett not discovering any natives saying ‘undetached rabbit part’, instead of ‘rabbit’ is to be expected on Quine’s picture; it is no refutation of Quine. But there is another reason that combining Everett’s view with Carey et al won’t work; Everett’s entire book is dedicated to refuting appeals to innate concepts, innate language, innate morality etc. Everett even dedicates a section of his book to criticising the methodology that Carey uses when arguing for innate concepts.

On a superficial level it may seem that Everett is being inconsistent appealing to innate perceptual constants in an attempt to refute Quine while spending the majority of his book criticising appeals to innateness. But Everett is not being inconsistent at all, in fact he spells out his commitments to some form of innate apparatus throughout the book:

“To deny instincts in one domain does not entail denial of the obvious fact that our genes impose strong limitations on us. There obviously are things such as innate characteristics-eye color, adipose cell concentration, blood type, height, and so on. The question is whether there are Bastian like innate conceptual structures…in what follows I want to argue that all forms of innate conceptualism-Platonic a priori knowledge, all Bastianisms- are detriments to understanding, passé and deeply flawed” (Everett: Dark Matter of the Mind pp. 286-287)

“In fact, I believe that there is evidence that humans and other animals may be born with some instincts (candidates include grasping, breathing, making sounds-all non epistemic). Rather, my objection is that the vast majority of research on human instincts is looking in the wrong place. It is looking for knowledge instead of more basic capacities like emotions. (ibid p. 321)

Here we can see that Everett is very clear he has no problem with innate grasping instincts, innate perceptual constants etc, his difficulty is with appeals to innate conceptual abilities or innate apparatus of an epistemic nature. So whether one agrees with Everett’s views or not he cannot be automatically be accused of inconsistency in arguing for innate perceptual constants but not arguing for innate concepts. Nonetheless I will show that Everett is still being somewhat inconsistent as the sceptical arguments he uses to pour cold water on arguments for a language instinct, or a morality instinct are not applied when he argues for the existence of innate perceptual constancies.

It is worth noting that to some degree it is possible for Everett to have his cake and eat it. He could benefit from Carey’s work without being committed to the existence of innate concepts. Tyler Burge in his ‘Origins of Objectivity’ argues convincingly that Susan Carey’s data is evidence of object representations that are perceptual not conceptual. Burge argues that Carey wrongly thinks that because representations as of objects are not reducible to spatial and temporal properties and relations they are not perceptions (‘ Origins of Objectivity’ p. 249). Burge argues convincingly that Carey is incorrect in holding this view and that the fact that our perceptual apparatus attributes bodily representations when objects are out does not show that such representations are not perceptual (ibid p. 249). Whether Burge’s analysis is correct or not is beyond the remit of this paper. My only point is that a theorist who wants to rely on perceptual constants to undermine the IDT may find Burge’s work useful. Everett however is denied this obvious route because he rejects the very evidence that Carey and Burge relies on. Firstly Everett’s just dismisses Carey’s arguments for innate concepts:

“Even Carey’s theory of concepts recognizes that many concepts (e.g. “US president”) must be learned. However, once we have understood how, why, and which concepts are learned transculturally, what is left for Nativism, aside from standard poverty of stimulus arguments? And what, after all, does “poverty of stimulus” mean in practice, other than we cannot think of a stimulus responsible for a particular concept, action or other learning? As many have said in the past, when looked at carefully, the expression “poverty of stimulus” in interchangeable in practice with “poverty of imagination”.” (Everett: ‘Dark Matter of the Mind p. 274)

I have been critical of poverty of stimulus arguments in the past (see King 2016b), but not on the grounds that they amount to nothing more than a poverty of imagination but rather because the primary poverty of stimulus arguments used in linguistics have been refuted. These refutations have typically been either ignored or dismissed as unimportant by generative grammarians. The work on concept acquisition by people like Carey is much more experimentally driven than that of Chomsky,  the constant experimentation that occurs to test claims that x or y is innate, means that there is always a possibility that future experiments will refute a claim that x is innate. While Carey does make a distinction between competence and performance her distinction is not as rigid as Chomsky’s distinction. Carey won’t just dismiss performance data as irrelevant if it contradicts her theory[5]. So there is not much merit in claims that her arguments for innate concepts are mere poverty of imagination, the rigid experimental procedure she uses means that her imagination is constantly kept in check by reality.

Everett though doubts the soundness of Carey’s experimental tests. Everett argues that the Gaze monitoring paradigm favoured by most contemporary psychologists is methodologically flawed. His criticisms of the Gaze monitoring paradigm are little more than a caricature. Everett argues that the method erroneously relies on an assumption that we can perfectly interpret infant’s gazes (DMM p. 308). This claim of Everett’s  is clearly false; a close look at any of the many experiments done in the field shows many controls put in place to avoid bias and shows many experiments ruling out previous interpretations held by the theorist (See Carey 2009 for examples). Nonetheless the upshot is that by rejecting the empirical work achieved in the gaze following paradigm Everett is making it extremely difficult to prove his case that innate perceptual constants rule out the IDT.

As we saw above Everett constructed a quasi evolutionary “just-so” story to demonstrate his case that all humans are born with innate perceptual constants. This is in keeping with the general arguments of his book; a key point he makes over and over again is that if we are to postulate innate apparatus we need an evolutionary story as to how it arrived. In fact Everett offers a list of reasons as to why he is sceptical about claims that certain aspects of human knowledge are innate:

Here are some of the things that bother me about proposals that important aspects of human knowledge are innate (e.g. Morality, language): (1) The nonlinear relationship of genotype to phenotype; (2) failure to link “instincts” to environment-today’s instincts are often tomorrow’s learning, once we learn more about environmental pressures to acquire certain knowledge; (3) problematic definitions of innatess; (4) failure to rule out learning before proposing an instinct; (5) the unclear content of what is left over for instincts after acquired dark matter is accounted for; and (6) lack of an evolutionary account for the origin of an instinct.” ( DMM p. 284)

Everett’s difficulties with proposals for instincts in the case of language are seriously at odds with his casual postulation of innate perceptual constants. Everett just presented a vague story about the survival value of innate perceptual constants but justified it with no actual data. Contrast this with Chomsky who has co-authored multiple articles and a recent book (co-authored with Bob Berwick) book on the evolution of language ‘Why only Us: Evolution and Language’ going into great detail as to how the purported language instinct evolved. One doesn’t have to agree with Chomsky’s theory ( I don’t), but one wonders why Everett is so stringent in criticising the postulating of a language instinct but doesn’t hold himself to the same standards. On no reading can Everett’s casual “just-so” story be considered a serious attempt to deal with the issue of the IDT. Everett has written serious papers on the evolution of language[6] so he knows what it involves. One wonders why his evolutionary speculations on perception were not given the same seriousness. I suspect that he needed some theory to explain why he never encountered Quine type cases and the “just-so” story seemed to fit the bill. But as we have seen he shouldn’t have been surprised that he never encountered Quine type cases; this is to be expected.

If Everett wants to try and undercut Quine’s IDT using perceptual constants he needs to first present serious evidence for such constants. It is hard to see where this evidence could come from other than engaging with developmental psychology in detail. The caricatures he presents of developmental psychology don’t represent the actual work in the field. More detailed evidence is necessary before he can claim to have refuted Quine’s IDT argument.









Berwick, R., and Chomsky, N. (2016) Why Only Us: Language and Evolution. The MIT Press: Cambridge MA.

Burge, T. (2010) Origins of Objectivity. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Carey, S. (2009) The Origin of Concepts. Oxford University Press: New York.

Carey, S. (2014) On Learning New Primitives in the Language of Thought: Reply to Rey. Mind and Language 29 (2): 133-136.

Everett, D.L. (2016a) Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious. The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

Everett, D.L. (2016b) Grammar Came Later: Triality of Patterning and the Gradual Evolution of Language. Journal of Neurolinguistics Nov 10 2016.

Everett, D.L. (2017) Forthcoming How Language Began. New York: W.W. Norton/Liveright.

King, D. (2016a) Indeterminacy of Translation and Innate Concepts: A Critical Review. Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations 16: 104-141.

King, D. (2016b) Poverty of Stimulus Arguments and Behaviourism. Behaviour and Philosophy, 43 36-61.

Markman, E. (1989) Categorisation and Naming in Children: Problems of Induction. The MIT PRESS: Cambridge. MA.

Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct. Penguin: Random House Uk.

Quine, W.V. (1960) Word and Object. MIT PRESS: Cambridge, MA.

[1] Dark Matter of the Mind will henceforth be referred to as DMM.

[2] The Indeterminacy of Translation Argument will henceforth be referred to as IDT.

[3] For a detailed evaluation of uses of the IDT in the cognitive science literature see my ‘The Indeterminacy of Translation and Innate Concepts:  A Critical Review’.

[4] Henceforth the Inscrutability of Reference will be referred to as ISR.

[5] Sue Carey ‘On Learning New Primitives in the Language of Thought: Reply to Rey’, where she correctly criticises Chomsky scholar George Rey of making using competence so rigidly as to rule out any possibility of being refuted.

[6] See Everett’s excellent ‘Grammar Came Later: Triality of Patterning and the Gradual Evolution of Language’, Everett also has a forthcoming book ‘How Language Began’ New York: W.W. Norton/Liverlight.

David Berman TCD Lecture Series on Near Death Experience Extra-Mural Lectures: Berman describes his lecture series as follows “I am writing to say that I plan to give six additional extra-mural lectures in Hilary term 2017 on ‘The Logic and Credibility of After-death Existences’, to begin on Saturday, 4 February 2017. What I am proposing is not to give again the original course of nine lectures, although I plan to review and revise that course of lectures*, as well  as deepen and extend what I have to say on various topics- as, for example, on Spinoza and reincarnation. As before the lectures are to take place in the Philosophy Department seminar room, 5012, in the Arts Building,  on Saturday mornings, from 10:00 to 11:15.  The first lecture is to be on Saturday, 4 Feb. 2017,  and extend over the next five weeks, to Saturday,  11 March 2017.  As before, I am setting a quota, for this course 20 persons. Those who wish to attend the new course, can do so by post, enclosing a cheque/draft/ postal money order made payable to Trinity College no. 1 account, to the Executive Officer, Ms Una Campbell, Department of Philosophy, Arts Building, Trinity College, or call into the Philosophy Department Office, and pay directly.  It might also be possible to pay and the course on the morning of the first lecture, outside the seminar room 5012.  But, as mentioned above, places are limited to 20. The cost for the six lectures is €50.  A concession rate (€35) is available to students, unemployed persons and those in receipt of a social welfare pension. Those wanting additional information can contact me at dberman@tcd.ie or 01 8961126. *Here is the summary of the 9 lectures, originally printed in the TCD brochure of extra-mural lectures, for 2015/6: I begin by setting out what I take to be the seven or eight most serious forms or scenarios of after-death existences; these are (1) a disembodied realm of Heaven & Hell; (2) reincarnated persons; (3) resurrection of bodies; (4) pure indivisible minds; (5) world of Gods, demi-gods or Forms; (6) Brahmin consciousness, Moksha or Nirvana; (7) dream-image world; (8) oblivion or extinction.  Along with setting out the logic and some history of after-death existences [=ade], I also introduce the case against ade, as well perhaps their greatest critic, namely David Hume and his great essay against immortality. I then move into a more autobiographical mode, in which I briefly describe how I came to be interested in this subject, and how I came to see that those holding (8)- which is the present educated consensus, and was previously my position- are in the grips of an illusion- understood in the Freudian sense- an illusion of mortality.  I have also come to see that options 1, 2, 4, 5 and 7, are more feasible than is now generally allowed; whereas scenario 3, which is most widely and fervently accepted nowadays, by Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, turns out, ironically, to be least credible as well as tending to occlude the other more credible options. Hence what is probably most distinctive about these lectures is that while their attitude to after-death existences is positive, this does not come from a commitment to any established religion- indeed, if anything, quite the opposite.  Another distinctive feature of this course concerns dreams, and especially the crucial idea that just as when we normally dream we do not know we are dreaming, so, according to various writers, the dead (at least the recent dead) do not know that they are dead.  What follows from this idea is the hypothesis that the most plausible way to understand the next life is as dream imaging, which is, in fact, broadly held by various religious traditions and has also been developed in a clear way by the Analytic philosopher, H. H. Price. I then examine the account of reincarnation of the idealistic philosopher, John McTaggart, which I believe is, like the dream-image theory, plausible yet largely ignored by present-day philosophers and those interested in reincarnation. I then look closely at the work of another now largely ignored thinker, Emmanuel Swedenborg, and his extraordinary account of the next life, which presents in detail one of the three important sub-forms of scenario 1 (the others being by Plato and Dante), having argued in an earlier lecture  that combining it with Price’s account of the next life as dream-image can enhance both theories. Looking back on what has been said, and glancing very briefy at what is presently the most popular source of ade, namely Near Death Experiences, or NDEs, I then, at the end of the course, try to reach a conclusion about the credibility of ade.”

Wolfram Hinzen on Dennett and the Naturalization of Meaning.

In his interesting (2007) book ‘An Essay on Names and Truth’ Wolfram Hinzen tried to construct an internalist theory of meaning. His book contains excellent critiques of traditional attempts to deal with meaning such as Russell’s theory of descriptions, and points to various weaknesses in philosophers attempts at referentialist semantics. Hinzen’s position is interesting and nuanced, even if his answer to the traditional question of where meaning begins is shrouded in mystery. However some of his criticisms of philosophers who hold alternative philosophical views amount to nothing more than strawman. In this short blog-post I will discuss Hinzen’s critique of Dennett’s attempt to naturalise meaning, and show that Hinzen is wildly misrepresenting Dennett’s views. I will then proceed to compare Dennett’s actual position with Hinzen’s views on meaning.

Hinzen’s internalist account of concepts has been hailed as nothing short of a Copernican Revolution in philosophy by Cedric Boeckx. It is certainly true that Hinzen’s views on concepts do run against the externalist approach favoured by most philosophers of language. Nonetheless, despite the fact that Hinzen’s views are not dominant it is a bit of a stretch to label them as revolutionary. Hinzen’s views on the nature of concepts are basically just a combination of the views of Fodor and Chomsky on concepts. The way he brings the ideas together is novel and interesting but not the stuff of some wild paradigm shift.

Hinzen argues that concepts are atoms without internal structure, and that these atoms can be combined in novel ways using the syntactic operation merge. Now a basic concept that cannot be analysed further is obviously one that cannot be explained in any other terms than itself. Thus the meaning of the concept CAT is simply cat; there can be no further constituents to the concept. While thinking of concepts as atoms with no internal structure is extremely counter intuitive there are some good (but not overwhelming arguments for the position).

Traditionally when philosophers wanted to cash out what concepts were they attempted to do so interms of definitions, the idea being that each concept could be explicated in terms of its unique definition. Of course not all concepts can be definitions you need some basic concepts to define the others in terms of. A solution to this problem was to argue that some concepts are primitives and that all other concepts are defined in terms of these concepts. Thus on the empiricist side of things people like Hume argued that our primitive concepts could be cashed out in terms of sensory ideas, and more complex concepts could be constructed using these sensory primitives. On the rationalist side of things, people like Sue Carey argued that we have innate basic concepts like causation, agency, object etc and all other concepts can be derived from this basic list of inventories.

Fodor, of course, had serious difficulties with this solution he argues that concepts cannot in principle be cashed out interms of definitions. Firstly concepts compose but definitions do not, therefore concepts cannot be definitions. Secondly, despite years of searching concepts don’t seem amenable to definitions (except in a trivial sense). Based on facts like the preceding ones Fodor argues that concepts cannot be cashed out interms of definitions.

Another route to explicating the internal structure of concepts is to argue that concepts can be cashed out in terms of their inferential role. Famous exponents of this view are Bob Brandom and Paul Boghossian. Fodor argues that the view that concepts can be cashed out interms of inferential roles is not coherent. To make this argument he notes that inferential role semantics is typically married to pragmatism about concepts.

Fodor’s argument against Inferential Role Semantics as sketched in his LOT 2 is pretty simple. The argument is as follows:

  • Inferential Role Semantics claims that we can explain what a concept means by showing the inferential role it plays in our language.
  • But Inferential Role Semantics is circular. We can see this by looking at it in relation to the concept AND; if we try to define AND in terms of its inferential role we need to presuppose a precise meaning of AND to do so. Therefore our supposed inferential role definition of AND is circular.
  • Inferential Role Semantics theorists claim that Fodor’s argument against Informational Role Semantics doesn’t work because it gives primacy to ‘Knowing-that’ over ‘knowing-how’.
  • But Information Role Semanticists do the opposite. They in effect conjoin Inferential role semantics with Pragmatism.
  • According to Fodor this won’t work, Pragmatism does not distinguish between the ideas of fitting and guiding behaviour. Whereas Inferential Role Semantics wants to explain the meaning of concepts like AND in knowing that terms. The two programmes are incompatible.

“In short, pragmatists have a choice between analyses of rule-following that are too weak and analyses of rule-following that are circular. This is, I think, a bona fide dilemma; there is no way out. The long and short is that you can’t hold both that its definition-in-use has a privileged role in a semantics for ‘and’ and also that grasping ‘and’ requires no more than reasoning in a way that accords with its definition-in-use. Rule-according reasoning isn’t sufficient for rule-following reasoning. I repeat for emphasis: You aren’t following R unless R is the intentional object of one of your mental states.” ( Jerry Fodor ‘LOT2 p. 38)

“In particular, the definition-in-use story about concept individuation wants certain Gentzen style rules of inference to be constitutive of AND. But, according to concept pragmatists, what’s required for AND possession is just being reliably disposed to make valid conjunctive inferences; which rules you follow in making the inferences (indeed, whether there are any rules you follow in making them) isn’t relevant to whether you have a grasp of AND. (ibid p. 39)


  • Fodor concludes that Informational Role Semantics and pragmatism cannot be conjoined. One of them must be given up. He argues that Informational Role Semantics is false because as we have seen above it is circular even in its attempts to define simple concepts like AND. Whereas because he thinks that pragmatists cannot account for the compositionality of concepts that is a non-starter as-well.

Based on the above considerations Fodor argues that basic concepts cannot be explicated in terms of either definitions, or definitions-in-use. So Fodor concludes that basic concepts cannot be explicated further in terms of definitions; instead he argues they are atoms which don’t break down.

Hinzen doesn’t deal with the weakness of inferential role semantics instead he works on critiquing attempts to explicate concepts interms of definition, and he critiques attempts to explicate concepts interms of a relation of reference to a mind independent world. On the area of definitions he raised Fodor’s point that concepts like KILL cannot be explicated interms of the internal structure CAUSE TO DIE, because KILL and CAUSE TO DIE behave differently in syntactic constructions. Hinzen shows various different ways that KILL and CAUSE TO DIE behave both semantically and syntactically and draws the following conclusion:

This is evidence that a word like kill is not only syntactically but also semantically simple- it is an atom-contrary to a phrase like cause to die, which does exhibit syntactic and semantic structure” (Wolfram Hinzen ‘An Essay on Names and Truth’ p. 75)

After establishing to his mind that atomic concepts have no internal structure Hinzen points out that this will leave us with serious difficulties in explicating what atomic concepts actually are:

So, what is the essence of an atom? Clearly, the content of any concept C is essential to it, whatever notion of content or meaning one has (e.g. a referential or use theoretic one): concepts are semantically individuated. This is simply to say that without meaning house, the concept of a house, whatever it is, would not be the concept it is. I take it as undeniable that, again, whatever one’s notion of meaning, one will concede that our concept of a house means house and not horse, say, chair or Piccadilly.” (ibid p. 77)

Hinzen fully admits that this is a circular definition but he argues that there is no other non-circular way of explicating what the essence of our atomic concepts are. He even goes as far as to argue that if atomic concepts are to be analysed in terms of anything other than themselves then that analysis will belong to the relational explication of the concept not its intrinsic aspects. He then proceeds to analyse attempts to explain meaning relationally and show where these accounts go badly wrong. These attempts to explain meaning in terms of a word-world relation are badly wrong according to Hinzen. His criticism referential semantics is largely derived from Chomsky’s criticisms of attempts to cash out meaning in terms of reference (See Chomsky 1986, Chomsky 2000).

These Chomskian arguments centre on concepts like LONDON, BOOK, BANK etc which have curious and sometimes contradictory properties which suggest that they cannot be explicated in terms of referring to mind independent entities. Chomsky has famously argued that if we use a term in language, the use of the term does not automatically commit us to the ontological existence of the entity supposedly referred to by the term. So if we take terms like: ‘flaw’, ‘the average man’, ‘unicorn’, it does not follow that because these terms exist in our language that they refer to mind independent entities. He correctly stresses that we should not read off our ontology from our ordinary way of speaking. In another context Chomsky mentions how our ordinary concepts reflect intricate and surprising constraints on how we can interpret the world. These constraints will to a certain extent determine how we use our concepts to refer. Chomsky labels these constraints an I-variant of Frege’s telescope, implying that it is through the lens of these constraints that we can refer to entities in the world. So, for example, if we take the word ‘London’, this word has various different properties some of which are contradictory:

We can regard London with or without regard to its population: from one point of view, it is the same city if its people desert it; from another, we can say that London came to have a harsher feel to it through the Thatcher years, a comment on how people act and live. Referring to London, we can be talking about a location or area, people who sometimes live there, the air above it (but not too high), buildings, institutions, etc., in various combinations ( as in London is so unhappy, ugly and polluted that it should be destroyed and rebuilt 100 miles away, still being the same city). Such terms a London are used to talk about the actual world, but neither are or are believed to be things-in-the world with the properties of the intricate modes of reference that a city name encapsulates. ( Chomsky ‘New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind’ p. 37)

So terms such as ‘London’ are used to talk about the actual world but, according to Chomsky, people do not think that there are things in the world with the properties of the intricate modes of reference that a city name encapsulates.

In effect Hinzen’s project can be read as a sceptical attempt to rid linguistics of semantics and leave it to work primarily with syntax and pragmatics. He takes on board Fodor’s argument against definitions being incapable of demonstrating any internal structure in lexical atoms, and he uses Chomsky’s arguments to show how concepts cannot be explicated interms of word-world relations. He doesn’t develop any arguments against inferential role semantics which is a big oversight given how dominant the school is in contemporary philosophy of language. But we have seen that in his ‘Language of Thought2’ Fodor constructed a compelling argument against inferential role semantics. So let us assume for the present that Fodor’s arguments against definitions, and against Inferential Role Semantics are sufficient to show that human have atomistic concepts with no internal structure.

That leaves it very difficult to cash out what the nature of concepts is. Fodor tried to overcome this problem by developing a causal theory where concepts lock on in a law like manner to aspects of the mind independent world. But of course Hinzen is convinced by Chomsky’s sceptical arguments against the possibility of developing a word-world relation type semantics. Again let us assume that Hinzen is correct to follow Chomsky in his semantic scepticism. We are then lead to a situation where it is pretty much impossible to say what the nature of these atomic concepts are. Hinzen makes the uninformative proposal that we can say that the concept DOG essentially means dog (where the meaning dog cannot be cashed out in terms of a mind independent entity).So while Hinzen has used some pretty strong arguments to critique traditional conceptions of the nature of concepts and the nature of reference; what he has left in place is a mystery instead of an explanation.

Hinzen’s theory amounts to appealing to concepts, the nature of which is unknowable, these concepts despite appearances do not change as we learn more about the environment, and though we can use these concepts for certain purposes how we do so is shrouded in mystery. When all a theorist has to offer is a veil of mystery in place of a theory then a hard sell is necessary. Hinzen’s hard sell involves caricaturing people who hold opposing philosophical views to make his theory look comparatively superior. To put words in Hinzen’s mouth one can imagine him defending his mystery mongering as follows: “Sure my theory may amount to nothing but an appeal to a mystery, but that’s not surprising, we are after all angels not gods, there are bound to be things we cannot understand. Anyway at least my theory is more coherent than its nearest competitor take Dan Dennett’s silly views…”. My view that Hinzen caricatured Dennett as a way of making his own theory look comparatively good is obviously only speculation, but I am hard pressed to think of any other reason he would misrepresent Dennett so badly.

Hinzen critiqued Dennett’s views on the naturalisation of meaning; arguing that they were wildly out of step with what we know about language and how it works. Dennett’s mantra in a nutshell is “don’t expect more determinacy of meaning than reality allows”. Dennett uses frogs as a way of illustrating his point about meaning and its level of determinacy. Frog’s eyes are triggered by moving flies, and when a moving fly is registered frogs will catch them with their tongues and eat them and he argues that there is no fact of the matter as to what the frog intends when he swats at the fly:

“And to the extent that there is nothing in the selective environment that uniquely singles out a particular class of occasions, there is also no fact of the matter about what the frog’s eye report really means.” (Dennett: Intuition Pumps p.257)

“Suppose scientists gather up a small population of frogs from some fly-grabbing species on the brink of extinction, and puts them under protective custody in a new environment-a special frog zoo in which there are no flies, but rather Zoo keepers who periodically arrange to launch little food pellets past the frogs in their care. To the keepers’ delight, the system works; the frogs thrive by zapping their tongues for these pellets, and after a while there is a crowd of descendent frogs who have never seen a fly, only pellets.” (ibid p.258)

Dennett notes that what happens to the frogs in his thought experiment, happens all of the time in evolution. It is a case of exaptation where a particular piece of machinery is selected for a different function. To make the case clearer Dennett supposes that in the new environment, variation in pellet detecting ability meant that certain frogs were more likely to survive than other frogs. He further argues that there was no particular moment when we are justified in saying that this is the point where what the frog’s eye report means changes. He argues that there is no fact of the matter about what a frog’s eye report means, and that it is a mistake to think that there is some determinate meaning encoded in the frog’s brain in terms of some kind of mentalese. The meaning of the black dots on the frog’s retina isn’t determined by some central meaner in the brain, rather it emerges gradually through shifts in environmental conditions. He argues that without the “indeterminate” variation in the triggering conditions of the frog’s eyes, selection for a different function would not be possible (ibid p.257).

Dennett thinks that the case of frog’s  indeterminacy of meaning is the same as the case with humans. We can interpret human’s behaviour by adopting the intentional stance, just like we can interpret human behaviour interms of the design stance or the physical stance. The intentional stance is particularly useful in helping us interpret human behaviour, but it is still just a stance, for Dennett there is no such thing as intrinsic intentionality.

Hinzen thinks that Dennett’s stance-stance approach when looked at closely commits Dennett to absurd and unacceptable consequences. In his ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ Dennett constructed a thought experiment where a person (Oscar) was unknowingly transported to another a planet Twin Earth which is identical to ours in most respects except they have creatures (schmorses) which look and behave the same way as our horses do but have a different internal structure. When for the first time Oscar sees what he thinks is a horse he says ‘Lo a horse’ and the intuition typically being pumped is that in this situation Oscar has said something false, because what he is referring to is actually a schmorse. But Dennett argues that there is another way to think about the issue. He argues that a person’s concept of a horse may actually be more relaxed. That what a person means by horse, involves bare perceptual features such as its shape and general behaviour, (this person may be completely ignorant of the biology). Since the schmorse has the same perceptual features and general behaviour as what Oscar means by horse, when Oscar says ‘Lo a horse’ he is right according to his own lights (though not by the lights of the scientific community). On Dennett’s view since our concepts are more messy and indeterminate than the rigid definitions of natural science concepts, then there may be no fact of the matter of precisely what Oscar means. Based on these facts Hinzen draws the following conclusion about Dennett’s position:

“The implied answer to this rhetorical question is that there is no fact of the matter: there is no more determinacy to be had here anymore than in the case of the frog. As long as a horse is used to denote both horses and schmorses, it can mean both. Depending on the environment we place you in, the meaning of your words shifts, and can mean as many things as it can take up functional roles, which is indefinitely many (schmorses, lorses, whorses, Trojan ones, reincarnations, etc.) If there really is nothing in our concept of a horse, there is nothing from preventing the word from meaning anything. So if it came to be used to refer to horse skins, riders of horses,  or landscapes behind horses, there would be nothing to prevent us from saying  it does not refer to that. It follows that Dennett cannot mean anything other by the word ‘horse’ than what is effectively a phonetic label.” (Hinzen: “An Essay on Names and Truth” p.88)

Here Hinzen is engaging in a gross caricature of Dennett’s views. The views attributed to Dennett are indeed absurd; the only difficulty for Hinzen is that Dennett doesn’t hold anything like those views. Here are Dennett’s actual views on the topic:

“What you mean by the word “horse” (your private mental concept of a horse) is something like one of those equinish beasts that we Earthlings like to ride, an epithet anchored in your mind by all your memories of horse shows and cowboy movies. Let us agree that this memory matrix fixes the kind of thing to which your concept of horse applies… Nothing forces us to suppose that your concept of a horse wasn’t more relaxed in the first place rather like your concept of table. (Try telling the story of Twin Earth with the suggestion that the tables there aren’t really tables, but just looks like tables and are used for tables. It doesn’t work does it?). Horses and schmorses may not be the same biological species, but what if you, like most earthlings have no clear concept of species, and classify by appearance: living thing that looks like Man O War. Horses and schmorses both fall into that kind, so, when you call a Twin Earth beast a horse, you’re right after all. Given what you mean by “horse,” schmorses are horses- a non Earthly kind of horse, but a horse just the same. Non-earthly tables are tables. It is clear that you could have such a relaxed concept of horses and you could have a tighter concept, according to which schmorses are not horses, not being the same earthly species. Both cases are possible. Now, must it be determinate whether our horse concept (prior to your move) meant the species or the wider class? It might be, if you are well read in biology, for instance, but suppose you are not. Then your concept- what “horse” actually means to you- would suffer the same indeterminacy as the frog’s concept of fly (or was it all along the concept small airborne food item?)” (Dennett ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ p. 411)

Above we see Dennett arguing that Oscar’s concept of horse centres on perceptual features of the creature, and on functional roles that the creature plays in society; he also argues that the concept is anchored to our entire memories of sightings and behaviours of the creature. But Hinzen somehow ignores all of these claims of Dennett and manages to interpret Dennett as believing that Oscar’s concept of ‘Horse’ is non-existent and all ‘Horse’ amounts to is a phonetic label. This interpretation of Dennett is beyond the pale interms of inaccuracy, Dennett clearly isn’t arguing that Horse is just a phonetic label, he is saying that it expresses a concept which may not have the precise features of the scientific concept of horse.

Hinzen could possibly defend his interpretation of Dennett by saying that his intentional stance position is not robustly real enough, and since the ‘as if’ concepts we attribute Oscar can be changed willy nilly, Dennett really is committed to the strange view that ‘horse’ is nothing other than a meaningless label. But again, this would be too badly misjudge Dennett’s position. The intentional stance approach isn’t an anything goes stance. The stance is constrained by pragmatic constraints and computational constraints. In his ‘Real Patterns’ Dennett makes the following point:

“Gregory Chaitin’s valuable definition of mathematical randomness invokes this idea. A series (of dots or numbers or whatever)  is random if and only if the information required to describe (transmit) the series accurately is incompressible: nothing shorter than the verbatim bit map will preserve the series. The a series is not random-has a pattern-if and only if- there is some more efficient way of describing it…of course, there are bound to be other ways of describing the evident patterns in these frames, and some will be more efficient than others-in the precise sense of being systematically specifiable in fewer bits. Any such description, if an improvement over the bit map, is the description of a real pattern in the data.” (Dennett: ‘Real Patterns’ p. 293).

As the above quote shows very clearly, Dennett is not committed to some arbitrary anything goes position on intentional ascription. He has a precise model of when we are justified in using the intentional stance. There is no textual evidence in Dennett’s position to support Hinzen’s interpretation of him, on any sensible reading of Dennett he doesn’t hold the views that Hinzen ascribes to him.

Aside from his misinterpretation of Dennett’s views Hinzen’s discussion of concepts in terms of negative evidence against dominant approaches to semantics is well argued (aside from the oversight of ignoring inferential role semantics). But his positive conception of concepts is empty and offers no real explanation of what the nature of concepts actually are.

Chomsky and his Critics the Anger Continues: Spodes Attack on Everett.

E.J. Spode’s recent article for 3am: Magazine http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/tom-wolfes-reflections-language/ continued the angry tone of Chomsky’s disciples anytime Chomsky is criticised.  Spode’s article was funny and accurate at times his comparing Wolfe with Trump was pretty on the money. Wolfe does lay it on way too think with his the poor little guys being crushed by big bad socially connected intellectuals. And Wolfe’s pretence to be a defender of the so called little guy, can I suppose be fruitfully compared with Trump pretending to be a man of the people. One of the really strange aspects of the article was the author pretending Wolfe’s book was given an easy ride and a load of good reviews until the brave E. J. Spode came along to tell the truth and expose the book for its failings. I have read every review I could get my hands on and as far as I can see the book was almost (aside from a few puff pieces) universally panned. I have criticised Wolfe’s book very heavily myselfhttps://kingdablog.wordpress.com/2016/09/21/tom-wolfe-chomsky-everett-and-the-evolution-of-language/ .  So Spode’s pretence to be the lone voice of reason is a bit weird; as pretty much everyone agreed with him that the book was poorly researched.

            When he starts talking about Chomsky though Spode goes completely off the rails. Personally, though I disagree with Chomsky about a lot, I think he is one of the most important thinkers of the last hundred years. But the way Spode talks about him is veering towards a kind of cult worship. This quote from Spode is bizarre:

“He came to us with that gift. He did not ask us to believe him, nor did he insist that we engage in that project ourselves. He simply told us what his project was and invited us to join him. And all we as a culture could do in our upscale magazines and newspapers and blogs was shit all over the man and clog the conversation with an endless stream of transparent gibberish from obvious charlatans. This is why we can’t have nice things.

That has to be the most cringe worthy pieces of sycophantic hero worship I have read in my entire life. He portrays Chomsky as analogous to Moses coming down from the mountain top with the ten-commandments to find the natives worshiping craven gods; it’s just overblown nonsense. Chomsky is a scientist who has a brilliant theory that other people don’t accept because they do not find the evidence sufficient. This biblical nonsense of Chomsky coming to us with a gift, which us ungrateful mortals with our fallen nature didn’t accept; isn’t science; it is the talk of cultish acolytes.

The rest of the article had very little argumentative structure and seemed to want to refute Everett by calling him names. He didn’t even attempt to engage with Everett and try to understand where he was coming from. His reasoning seemed to be that Everett is a buffoon, as only a buffoon could be silly enough to disagree with the great Chomsky. Everett is portrayed as a fool who is beneath the dignity of the great man to even debate with; so this duty was passed down to the disciples. Spode imagines Chomsky hearing about Everett’s discovery in the following way:

“Chomsky is working at his computer when a student rushes in.
Student: “Professor Chomsky! They’ve discovered an Amazonian tribe that has a language without recursion!”
Chomsky (slowly turning from his computer): “Can they learn Portuguese?”
Student: “Well… yes.”
Chomsky slowly turns back to his computer.”

Spode seems to think that because the Piraha can learn Portuguese then that is the end of the subject; Chomsky is right, let’s switch our brains off and go home. But as any child would recognise immediately the fact that the Piraha can learn Portuguese is neutral on the issue on whether Chomsky is correct that an innate domain specific language faculty is responsible. Likewise the evidence is neutral as to whether Everett’s theory of language being a domain general cultural tool is the correct story. The truth is that the Piraha debate on its own won’t settle the issue of whether Chomsky’s theory is correct or not. There are multiple factors that need to be considered. Poverty of stimulus arguments ( I have discussed this issue herehttps://www.academia.edu/27279064/POVERTY_OF_STIMULUS_ARGUMENTS_AND_BEHAVIOURISM_CHOMSKY_AND_QUINE_ON_LANGUAGE_LEARNING ) and the ample evidence against them, impossibility arguments and the empirical computational models which purport to show that impossibility arguments do not work, evidence and counter evidence from children with Williams Syndrome, so called Specific language Impairment etc ( https://www.academia.edu/9988559/Williams_Syndrome_and_the_Language_Instinct ) . There are debates on whether children receive corrections and whether they can make use of these corrections etc. There is mountains of evidence out there that need to be considered to adjudicate the issue but Spode ignores this evidence and instead constructs an imagined scenario that involves blatant question begging about the issue. If Piraha can learn Portuguese then Spode seems to reason we will assume without argument that this demonstrates that Chomsky is correct.

As his review went on it got nastier and nastier in tone and the arguments made less and less sense. At one point he chastises the brilliant anthropologist Barbara King for making the obvious point that there is no evidence that Everett is racist:

“Does it occur to King that by joining the parade of those primitivizing the Pirahã, she has added her support for a dominant discourse too? – a very old colonial narrative that, to borrow the words of Geoff Pullum, perhaps hides “our buried racist tendencies?” Perhaps yes, as she rallies to defend Everett: “The racism charge is plainly baseless; in his books Everett portrays the Pirahãs as clever people.” Well. That settles that.”

Now at this point we have left the realm of science. Spode is claiming that if a scientist discovers a language that is structured differently than say English; if we discover it is less complex then we are being racist. In effect he is asking us to stipulate a priori that all languages are equally complex, to eschew any empirical research into the matter and just stipulate the issue. As a person who is interested in understanding the nature of language I will stick to empirical research and let Spode stipulate matters how he wants. The fact is though that Everett didn’t argue that the Piraha language was inferior to our own language, instead he argued that it was a tool that developed differently because of the different cultural practices of the Piraha.

Other charges from Spode involve chastising Everett for changing his mind about the structure of the Piraha language as he learned more about the subject. Incredible though it seems, Spode seems to think that modifying your views in light of new data is a bad thing and is evidence that Everett is a charlatan. This is a strange position to hold. Chomsky’s views on linguistics have changed over the years, his current views on the Minimalist Programme involve much less machinery to explain our linguistic competence than he allowed for example in his standard theory phase. Is this evidence that Chomsky is a charlatan? Personally I see it as evidence that Chomsky is a flexible scientist who is changes his views on language as he learns more, and I think the same is true of Everett. Why Sprode treats Chomsky changing his mind differently than Everett changing his mind is anyone’s guess, it may having something to do with Chomsky being Moses and giving us a gift despite our fallen nature.

Overall Spode’s discussion of Everett’s views is entirely unbalanced. He focuses on Pesetsky et al. paper ignoring Everett’s reply to their paper or the countless other papers written on the issue. Treating one paper as an indisputable source on a debate is unadvisable to say the least. Spode didn’t even go into Pesetsky et al’s paper in any detail preferring to slander Everett by association. So he set about naming a few cases of anthropological theories of remote tribes which have been proven false, seeming to believe that guilt by association is sufficient to refute Everett. This guilt by association is extremely poor practice. Imagine a critic of Chomsky pointing out that the lead author of the paper Everett was criticising ‘Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch 2002’ was subsequently sacked from his job for falsifying data in an experiment. Marc Hauser was indeed sacked for falsifying data. But this has no bearing on the paper he co-authored with Chomsky and Fitch. And it certainly has no bearing on Chomsky and Fitch in general. Only a despicable charlatan would try to slur Chomsky because of things his colleagues have done. Imagine saying that because Chomsky has worked closely with Jerry Fodor for years that he is responsible for Fodor’s views on evolution. This would be absolutely absurd. There is no reason that people should be attacked for things colleagues have done or believe. And the exact same thing should hold for Everett. By all means criticise his theories but this incessant name calling and attempts to convict him of mistakes that people he is not even connected to is absurd. People like Spode need to get used to the fact that legitimate scientists like Dan Everett, Michael Tomasello, and Alexander Clark disagree with Chomsky on the nature of language. They then need to address the issues in a balanced manner instead of continuing this pointless attempt to slur anybody who disagrees with the great man.

Tom Wolfe: Chomsky, Everett and the Evolution of language

Tom Wolfe’s new book ‘Kingdom of Speech’ has been almost universally dismissed by both linguists and evolutionary theorists alike for its misrepresentation of the respective subjects. The book has been slammed as a poorly researched hatchet job on intellectual giants Chomsky and Darwin. I find myself in agreement with a lot of the criticisms of Wolfe’s book. But before proceeding to criticise him I have to confess (guiltily) that I enjoyed the book. If it were a work of fiction I would recommend it. I thought it was well written; some people have a problem with Wolfe’s style of writing, but I enjoyed it. The book had drama, excitement, and flowed well. Unfortunately however the book was not a work of fiction; it was a work on intellectual history; in particular the history of the theory of evolution, and the history of attempts to explain the evolution of language. As a scholarly work it failed completely.

Wolfe’s book was filled with bad misrepresentations of the subjects he discussed (Darwin, Chomsky, and Everett), and he showed little understanding of the theories that any of these theorists held. Even when he was sympathetic to people; like he was to Everett, he still managed to misrepresent their views.

Wolfe isn’t the first artist[1] to try his hand at intellectual history and be burned. Years ago Yeats and Goldsmith tried their hand at intellectual history and biography when writing about the life and thought of philosopher George Berkeley. Berkeley scholar Luce dismissed Yeats biography of Berkeley as fantasy. Some could argue that Wolfe is guilty of similar fantasies. When discussing Yeats and Goldsmith’s biographies of Berkeley; David Berman made the following point:

There can be little doubt that Berkeley sat for Luce’s biographical portrait, given its judicious use of his correspondence and other hard evidence. Goldsmith was well known for mixing truth and fantasy. Similarly Yeats’ judgements are often based on intuition, as when he asserts that with Berkeley ‘we feel perhaps for the first time that eternity is always at our heels or hidden from our eyes by the thickness of a door’- an assertion which must prompt the question: is this biography or poetry? And yet for all that, more than a suspicion remains, as I have tried to show, that there was a deeper Berkeley which neither Latham nor Luce has captured. But of whom Goldsmith and Yeats have caught a glimpse”  (David Berman ‘Berkeley: Idealism and the Man’)

When reading Wolfe, the challenge is to disentangle where he is engaging in fantasy, and where he has perhaps caught a deeper glimpse than the scholars. The idea of an artist capturing a deeper glimpse of a person’s nature probably seems like mysticism. But it is not really that wild. We read fiction because of the insights it gives into how people behave. There is even evidence that reading fiction can increase empathy http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/. Chomsky admits as much himself:

It is quite possible-overwhelmingly probable, one might guess- that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology” (New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind)

It is not I submit, implausible that a writer of literary fiction may have insights into a person’s personality that more straight biographers lack. We accept this fact readily enough with psychotherapists. We understand that their hours of emphatic work with patients for months on end may result in an understanding of the human condition that goes deeper than the average person’s. It is for this reason that psycho-biographies are widely read.

Wolfe as brilliant literary writer uses his talents to try to reconstruct the inner worlds of his subjects on issues where there is scant documentary evidence. Much has been made about Wolfe’s discussions of Darwin’s feelings of guilt, and his rage when he received Wallace’s letter. Unlike a lot of critics, I think his account of Darwin’s feelings when he received Wallace’s letter has a certain degree of plausibility to it. In an age where scientists are sometimes portrayed as super human saints, a suggestion that Darwin may not have been happy that another guy had written up his theory of evolution before he published his seems almost sacrilegious. In the popular press we regularly see comments like the following one by Krauss “Scientists are really happy when they get it wrong, because it means there is more to learn” https://www.reddit.com/r/philosophy/comments/4k3iu4/rationally_speaking_lawrence_krauss_another/. This pretence that scientists don’t have human emotions and are rational saints is just silly. Science has good institutions to keep its practitioners straight; and they usually work well. But there is no reason to think scientists themselves are above normal human ambitions and behaviour. There are times in the book where Wolfe is speculating about the motives and thoughts about Darwin, and Chomsky in ways that seem somewhat plausible. The truth is we don’t truly know what Darwin felt when received Wallace’s letter. Wolfe’s, speculation on Darwin’s feelings have a degree of plausibility to them, and at least may prompt people to think in a new way about the history of thought.

However despite the book being well written, and offering more than the standard scientists are hyper rational gods trope, there is much that is badly wrong in his account of the history of ideas. Firstly his discussion of Chomsky and Everett gives a misleading picture of the state of play in linguistics. Wolfe portrays Linguistics as a field dominated by Chomsky; and Everett as a lone warrior fighting against this hegemony. This is a false picture. There are lots of theorists who strongly disagree with Chomsky on the language faculty. There is evidence from a variety of sources which contradict Chomsky’s postulation of a language faculty. As we learn more and more about performance data ( Pullum and Schulz 2002, Hart and Risley 1995, Sampson 2002, Choinard and Clark 2002, Everett 2016, Tomasello 2015), and more and more about domain general computational procedures ( Pefors 2016, Lappin and Clark 2013),  key claims made by Chomsky are being undermined. So Wolfe goes badly wrong in portraying this as a battle between two scientists. Many many scientists disagree with Chomsky’s views on language acquisition. In the 80’s there was a schism in linguistics known as the linguistic wars where Chomsky’s students e.g. Paul Postal and George Lakoff development of generative semantics split the subject apart. Today people who agree with Chomsky about the existence of a language faculty disagree with Chomsky about its architecture and how it evolved e.g. Pinker and Jackendoff. Philosophers like Fiona Cowie who partially support Chomsky’s linguistic Nativism have criticised many aspects of his theory. The list goes of disagreements could go on forever. So Wolfe’s tale of a two man battle for the soul of linguistics is over simplistic to say the least. Wolfe is not however incorrect to note that Chomsky has got an unusual amount of sway within linguistics. Nor is Wolfe wrong to document the disgraceful behaviour of Chomsky’s inner circle towards Everett. For a discussion of this angry war of words see http://chronicle.com/article/angry-words/131260 . I think Wolfe does a good job of characterising the sometimes aggressive and dismissive tone Chomsky takes towards those he disagrees with:

“As Chomsky grinds through Skinner for twenty thousand words, he uses the expressions “empty,” “quite empty,” “quite false,” “completely meaningless,” “perfectly useless,” and the like repeatedly…plus “vacuous…complete retreat to mentalistic psychology”…”mere paraphrases for the popular vocabulary” (appears on the same page as “perfectly useless,” “vacuous,” and “likewise empty”…”serious delusion”… “of no conceivable interest”… “play acting at science”…This is simply not true”…no basis in fact”…”very implausible speculation”… “entirely pointless and empty…As for any random figure of note who persisted in challenging his authority, Chomsky would summarily dismiss him as a “fraud” a “liar,” or a “charlatan”. He called B. F. Skinner, Elie Wiesel, Jacques Derrida, and “the American intellectual community” frauds. He called Alan Dershowitz, Christopher Hitchens, and Werner Cohn liars. He pinned the charlatan tag on the famous French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan…and he would pin another later on…” ( The Kingdom of Speech p. 97)

Wolfe discusses these aspects of Chomsky’s sometimes authoritarian attitude accurately. But the whole discussion is marred by his misrepresentation of the history of the discipline.

Possibly the strangest aspect of the book is that Wolfe attacks both Chomsky and Darwin as though they were two sides of the same coin. Darwin and Chomsky couldn’t be more different in terms of their approaches to science. Chomsky is a pure theorist in the mould of a theoretical physicist while Darwin was very much a data driven scientist. They would seem to have little in common other than being responsible inventing a new discipline.

While, Wolfe’s understanding of the intellectual history of both generative grammar and evolutionary theory could be considered a bit sloppy, with an occasional insight every now and then, his discussion of the science of evolutionary theory is wildly inaccurate. In an interview for NPR he actually said that Humans should not be considered animals and that language did not evolve. This is a bizarre statement, one that flies in the face of pretty much all empirical evidence. And in case one thinks that it was a throw away comment that doesn’t reflect Wolfe’s actual views as expressed in the book here is a direct quote from ‘The Kingdom of Speech’:

“There were five standard tests for a scientific hypothesis. Had anyone observed the phenomenon-in this case, Evolution-as it occurred and recorded it? Could other scientists replicate it? Could any of them come up with a set of facts that, if true, would contradict the theory (Karl Popper’s “falsifiability” test)? Could scientists make predictions based on it? Did it illuminate hitherto unknown or baffling areas of science? In the case of Evolution…well…no…no…no…no…and no.” (Tom Wolfe ‘The Kingdom of Speech’ p. 27)

These bizarre claims strain credulity; it is hard to believe that Wolfe believes them, this is the type of logic one sees from creationists and flat earth proponents. Your average school child who is unencumbered by blind ideology would see the falsehood of these statements immediately. In his piece for the Washington Post Jerry Coyne attacks these four claims noting that we have seen evolution in real time and via observation and by looking at the order of fossils. Evolutionary theory could be falsified by finding a rabbit in 400 hundred million year old sediments.  Coyne goes on to note that evolution does make predictions (he points to Darwin’s prediction that humans originated in Africa). And he notes that obviously evolutionary theory does help to solve biological problems in subjects like embryology.

Coyne’s replies are largely correct. But I would question his (and Wolfe’s) naive falsification views. If a rabbit was supposedly found in 400 million year old sediments I don’t think people would necessarily consider evolutionary theory refuted. There is such an incredible amount of evidence for the theory of evolution that one observation simply wouldn’t be enough to refute it. In the case of such an incredible find; the scientist’s credibility would be questioned; and variety different explanations would be offered. But it is doubtful an entire theory would have been dismissed because of an anomaly. This is common place in the history of science. So, for example, George Berkeley had legitimate criticisms of Newton’s notion of absolute space[2], and of the calculus of the day[3]. But scientists didn’t respond by rejecting Newton’s theory; how could they? The theory was the only theory at the time which could explain the relevant facts. They just had to live with certain anomalies until a better theory came along. Chomsky himself never tires of noting that Galileo didn’t drop his theory because it couldn’t account for the reason people didn’t fly off the surface of the earth. The same would be true of the theory of evolution it has incredible explanatory scope and despite what Coyne claims one observation wouldn’t be sufficient to refute it. Contrary to what Wolfe seems to think this is no real objection to evolutionary theory; in fact no scientific theory is refuted in such a clear cut manner by a single observation.

Coyne correctly noted that we have seen evolution in real time. He also should have noted that Wolfe implying that a failure to observe evolution directly is a refutation of the theory is ridiculous. Even if we could not directly observe evolution it would not hurt the theory in the slightest. We don’t directly observe Dark Matter, but we have good theoretical reasons to justify the postulation of it. It is just obvious that explanatory theories don’t need to have every aspect of them observed directly in order for us to say that on balance of evidence we are justified in believing that the theory is true. Wolfe seems to be operating on some kind of crude kind of positivist conception of science; that there is no real reason take seriously. Ultimately I think Coyne does a good job of critiquing this aspect of Wolfe’s views, not that a professor of biology is needed to refute Wolfe’s strange views on evolutionary theory.

Wolfe is a hugely popular writer whose sales will probably eclipse those of all other popular expositions of linguistics. In the popular mind because of the work of Tom Wolfe people may associate criticism of Chomsky; with denial of the truth of evolution. Wolfe has in a sense lined up Chomsky’s critics with crypto creationists. This is a disaster, and in the long run I think Wolfe’s book will likely win more supporters for Chomsky’s theory of linguistics; which is a pity because the evidence is badly at odds with Chomsky’s speculations.

In a sense Wolfe’s strange and completely unsupported views on Darwin and the theory of evolution have reversed the usual dialectic in the debate. It is typically Chomsky and his followers who have been perceived as having a problem with Darwin. Pre 1990 Chomsky was always sceptical about explaining the evolution of language. The quotes below give an inkling of his views pre 1990:

“In the case of such systems as language or wings it is not easy even to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them” ( Chomsky 1988 p.167)

“It is perfectly safe to attribute this development (of innate language structures) to “natural selection”, so long as we realize that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena (Chomsky 1972, p. 97)

Chomsky’s views at the time were extremely sceptical about whether natural selection could account for the evolution of language. As his theories about the structure of the language faculty became less clunky and awkward he began writing more and more about the evolution of language. But at one point of his views on the evolution of language were so sceptical sounding that Dennett devoted a substantial portion of his “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (a section titled Chomsky contra Darwin) to a criticism of Chomsky’s views on the prospects of explaining the evolution of language. Likewise in his The Language Instinct Pinker critiqued Chomsky’s sceptical views on explaining the evolution of language. Circa 1995 Chomsky was known as a scientist who had serious problems with the theory of evolution.

Furthermore some of Chomsky’s close colleagues shared his sceptical views on whether evolution through natural selection could explain the origins of language. Two close colleagues of Chomsky’s; Jerry Fodor and Massimo-Piattelli-Palmarini wrote a book ‘What Darwin Got Wrong’, that erroneously argued that natural selection is an incoherent concept that doesn’t do the work evolutionary theorists think it does. Furthermore in his ‘Mind and Cosmos’ Chomsky’s fellow Mysterian Tom Nagel view used his Mysterianism  about consciousness as premise in his argument that the Neo Darwinian conception of life is almost certainly false. Given the sceptical views on evolution held by some of Chomsky’s fellow Mysterians, and the claims that natural selection is an incoherent concept by Chomsky’s close colleagues, along with Chomsky’s early comments on evolution, a naive critic could be forgiven for holding the false view that Chomsky has some problem with the theory of evolution.

Any critic who actually reads Chomsky’s will know that Chomsky has no problem with evolutionary theory, and has been working for the last 15 years or so to develop an evolutionary account of language. He has authored and co-authored many peer reviewed papers on the evolution of language since 2002, and recently co-authored a book on the topic. So despite superficial appearances to the contrary Chomsky’s linguistic project is entirely consistent with the theory of evolution.

The important point to note is that as a result of popular science books like ‘The Language Instinct’, and ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’, in the eyes of the general public Chomsky is often viewed as having serious problems with evolutionary theory. Wolfe though may have turned this popular narrative on its head. Wolfe’s book will probably out sell either Pinker’s or Dennett’s and there is a danger that his bizarre views on evolutionary theory will be attributed to Dan Everett. Wolfe peddles the line that Everett has shown that language is an artefact something culturally constructed and hence something non-biological. Wolfe argues that because language is an artefact it is non biological and represents a hard and fast line between man and beast. None of these conclusions follow on Everett’s picture. Saying that language is culturally constructed is not to deny that biology plays a role. Furthermore, contrary to what Wolfe thinks, far from presenting some hard and fast gap between man and beast, Everett’s gradualist picture of the evolution of language offers no hope to those who want to deny that humans are animals.

Early in ‘The Kingdom of Speech’ Wolfe recollects how he stumbled upon a paper co-authored by Chomsky[4] ‘The Mystery of Language Evolution’ where Chomsky spoke about how aspects of the evolution of language remained mysterious to this day. Wolfe seized upon this. The fact the best researchers into language since Darwin were not able to explain the evolution of language must mean something. To Wolfe what this meant was that language was special; it couldn’t be explained in evolutionary terms; it was the thing that set humans above all other animals. This mode of reasoning is absurd. Chomsky pointing out that there are some aspects of the evolution of language that we don’t understand is not as Wolfe puts it a white flag; it is a call to work harder in developing your theory. And of necessity any theory that you develop won’t be complete.

Dan Everett’s paper ‘Grammar Came Later’ (2016) is clear evidence that Everett disagrees with Wolfe’s view that language cannot be accounted for in evolutionary terms. Everett, like Chomsky, has an evolutionary account of how language evolved. His views on the evolution of language differ from Chomsky’s in that Everett thinks that language developed over a much longer period than Chomsky does. Chomsky places the evolution of language at around 50,000 years ago when a random mutation gave us merge, whereas Everett thinks that language developed over a much longer period.

Everett notes some key facts about our evolutionary history. Over 3 million years ago a new type of ape arrived on earth called Australopithecus. According to Everett (ibid p. 30) Australopithecus could recognise iconicity. To support the claim that they recognised iconicity, Everett pointed out that they collected pebbles shaped like a human face, he cites the example  of Makpansgat Manuport. Everett goes on to note that up to 2.7 million years ago we have evidence of an icon shaped like a phallus called the Erfoud Manuport. (ibid p. 38).

Everett, following Peirce, notes that the movement from index, to icon, to symbol, is one of the key features of our linguistic capacities (ibid p.17). So the fact that Australopithecus was using icons 3 million years ago is clear evidence of the beginnings of linguistic tools being developed. 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.

According to Everett there is evidence that language of some sort has been around for 1 million years. 2.6 million years ago Homo-Erectus used crude tools Oldowadan tools (Language Came Later: p. 38) Acheulean tools were developed around 1.76 million years ago (ibid. 39). Homo Erectus immigrated from Africa to Europe around 900,000 years ago, Everett is surely correct that it very unlikely 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.

There is evidence that symbols were invented 550,000 years ago (ibid. p. 37). 300,000- 400, 000 years ago Homo-Heidbergensis used spears (ibid. p.35); this is evidence for culture. According to Everett compositionality was created by language use, and compositionality preceded recursion.

Everett’s picture of how we developed language begins with all animals having Indexes, Icons first emerged 3 million years ago with Australopitheicus, while we have evidence for Symbols up to 550,000 years ago. Everett notes that because symbols are arbitrary they require culture. This is because the meaning of the symbol must be stipulated by convention. And conventions are only possible within a culture.

With the capacity to use indexes, icons and symbols we have the beginning of language but it is not a real language until we add grammar into the mix. Hockett (1960) famously argued that language involved a duality of patterning involving. The duality involves (1) Syntagmatic: Linearity of symbols (which are constructed culturally through conventions) and (2) Paradigmatic: Using symbols for events and things initially to fill analogous positions in different syntagmemes. Everett goes further and argues that language is a triality of patterning because gesture plays a key role in the evolution of language. One of the key concepts in relation to gesture is the influence of ‘growth points’. Growth points are the points where speech and gesture are (a) synchronized (b) co-expressive (used at the same time in gesture and speech), (c) Jointly form a ‘psychological predicate’ (by psychological predicate he means when news worthy content is differentiated from context), (d) present the same idea in opposite semiotic modes (by opposite dynamic modes he means that the gestures are dynamic, created adlib and not conventionalised). (ibid p. 55).

Everett argues that if we add to the concept of growth point the theory of Meads loop we can explain how gesture would have contributed to developing language. He defines Meads Loop as follows:

 “One’s own gestures are responded to by one’s own mirror neurons in the same way that mirror neurons respond to the actions of others. Thus bringing one’s own actions into the realm of the social and contributing crucially to a development of a theory of mind-being able to interpret the actions of others under the assumption that they have minds like we do, and think according to similar processes” ( ‘Grammar Came Later’ p. 58)

Growth Point’s evolution from Mead’s Loop is the prerequisite for compositionality (ibid p. 58). Thus on this picture we get compositionality from communication not from a mutation which gives us recursion that we use to develop compositionality. So utterances combined with gestures are originally holophrastic and through reuse and gestural focusing on specific components of the holophrastic phrase get analysed into more detail leading to grammatical rules. (ibid p.60)

Everett notes that gestures, prosody, body positioning, eyebrow raising, have the joint effect of pointing out what aspects of the holophrastic utterance are salient, less salient and non-salient. With the utterance thus decomposed (as well as other utterances previously decomposed) people can take these components and associate meaning to them. It is a short step to construct novel new sentences once these various meanings are decoded. Hence you derive compositionality from social utterances, and gesturing.

He goes on to show how beginning with this basic process we can explain how morphology, phonology and syntax developed. I will not here go into the finer details of Everett’s theory, as my goal here is a description not to outline every aspect of his theory. Even after as brief a description as I have sketched here it should be obvious that Everett’s theory of the evolution of language is at odds with everything Wolfe proposes about language. Despite Wolfe treating Everett as the hero of his book there is nothing in common with their views on language evolution. Everett has a theory that purports to show how language has evolved; Wolfe on the other hand thinks that no such theory is possible, Wolfe is even sceptical about the truth of the theory of evolution.

In some respects Chomsky’s views on the evolution of language should be more congenial to someone like Wolfe who wants a hard and fast line to distinguish man from beast. Everett gives us a gradualistic approach that moves from capacities that all animals share to human specific capacities.  He takes us through a slow process where our linguistic capacities are developed through a long cultural process; Chomsky, on the other hand, gives us a nice cut off point where a mutation gives humans a computationally perfect linguistic capacity that provides concrete barrier that separates man from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Now obviously Chomsky’s position which postulates random mutations which created merge approx 50,000 years ago (the faculty of language narrow), and a faculty of language broad which is an adaptation created by the tinkering processes of natural selection provides no real comfort to Wolfe. Ultimately evolution does the job of the “creation” of language.  Whether Chomsky is correct, or Everett (or the many other theorists), there is no theory in the offing that is non-evolutionary. Wolfe let wishful thinking dictate how he interpreted the data.

[1] Wolfe has spent as much of his life writing journalism as he has writing literary fiction. But even his journalistic writing has an artistic feel to it.

[2] See Berkeley ‘De Motu’ and Karl Popper’s ‘Berkeley as a precursor to Mach and Einstein’.

[3] See Berkeley ‘The Analyst’.

[4] Chomsky et al (2014) ‘The Mystery of Language Evolution’.

David Berman Experimental Philosophy


The main subject of this course of lectures, on the History, Theory and Practice of Experimental Philosophy, is the direct experimental method in philosophy. The course begins, however, by looking at the history of this method, not only in the classic Empiricist philosophers, such as Locke, but also as it was used by those, like Descartes, who are usually described as Rationalists, and how it was importantly challenged by Kant’s transcendental method, which led, in the late 19th century, to the divorce between philosophy and psychology, when philosophy ceased to being experimental  and became  and became analytical or linguistic. Some discussion is also given to the difference between the direct experimental approach in philosophy and the recent form of experimental philosophy, sometimes abbreviated as X-Phi, whose approach is sociological rather than psychological.
From history, the course then moves to the central element of experience and experiment, where the focus is on a number
of do-able experiments, one of which Bertrand Russell called this ‘famous argument’, namely the three containers of water experiment, most fully developed by Berkeley in his Three Dialogues of 1713. Another area of experimentation is on taste and smell, more specifically the tastes of coffee. However, even more important are the experiments concerning mental images and the connections that can be drawn from these and mental types.                                                                                                               Probably the main guiding principle of the course is that philosophy can still be done in the fruitful way of the great philosopher-psychologists, from Descartes to William James, namely in the arm-chair, but not primarily through conceptual or linguistic analysis, but in the experimental or experiential way, which, it is argued, issues in the recognition that different people have different basic yet opposed types of experience, from which different typologies can and should be developed. Where this comes out most clearly in a theoretical way is in the history of philosophy, most importantly in the division between dualists, like Descartes, and monists, like Spinoza, but also in the key sensory division between visual types, like Berkeley, and those who were tactual, like Russell. Less important but still instructive is the typology of sour and bitter tasting and tasters, which draws on actual hands-on coffee tastings in the later part of the course, which those attending the course are invited to participate in.
More information about the content of the course can be found a workbook on the subject, written by the lecturer, entitled ‘A Manual of Experimental Philosophy’, which is available from Books Upstairs, in D’Olier St, or from the lecturer.

Lecturer: Prof. David Berman

Register in advance by post, to the Executive Officer, Department of Philosophy, Arts Building, Trinity College, Dublin 2 enclosing a cheque/draft/ postal money order made payable to Trinity College no. 1 account. Your receipt will be your ticket for the series. Registration might also be possible on the morning of the first lecture. But note that the number of places is limited to 25.

The cost for the ten lectures is €90. Concession rate (€60) is available to students, unemployed persons and those in receipt of a social welfare pension.

There will be ten lectures beginning on Saturday, 24 September 2016, 10:00 am – 11:15, in the Philosophy seminar room, 5012, Arts Building, Trinity College, Dublin 2.

For further information contact Prof Berman, Philosophy Department, Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin, Dublin 2, T: 01 896 1126, E: dberman@tcd.ie<mailto:dberman@tcd.ie> or Ms. Una Campbell, Philosophy Dept, Trinity College Dublin, T: 01 896 1529,ucmpbell@tcd.ie<mailto:ucmpbell@tcd.ie>

Footnotes to Pylyshyn

In a footnote of this ‘Origins of Objectivity’ Tyler Burge criticised Pylyshyn’s theory of vision. Burge argued that though Pylyshyn’s experimental work was very important Pylyshyn was to some degree misinterpreting his own experiments. Since Burge’s book was published Fodor and Pylyshyn[1] have written a book ‘Minds without Meanings’ where they further develop their direct reference theory.  In this blog-post I will consider their new book in light of the criticisms made by Burge and evaluate to what degree F and P’s claims stand up to critical scrutiny.

In some aspects the debate between F and P and Burge is an updated and more tractable version of the Quine/Wittgenstein point that ostensive definition requires a lot of stage setting. A lot of philosophers/psychologists think that the stage setting can be provided by innate constraints on interpretation. While others think that culture sets the stage in some ways. At a more fundamental level; the level of perception F and P seem to think that FINST can pick out objects independent of any stage setting; hence they argue that FINST do the job by locking on to distal objects. This provides their foundation as they move out towards more complex conceptual capacities. They present a variety of pieces of experimental evidence to support their claim. They note the following:

“One of the main characteristics of visual perception that led Pylyshyn (1989, 2001) to postulate FINSTs is that vision appears not only to pick out several individual objects automatically, but also to keep track of them as they move about unpredictably by using only spatio temporal information and ignoring visible properties of individual objects… Pylyshyn and his students demonstrated in hundreds of experiments (described in Pylyshyn 2001, 2003, 2007 and elsewhere), that observers could keep track of up to four or five moving objects without encoding any of their distinguishing properties (including their motion and the speed or direction of their movement.” (‘Mind’s Without Meanings pp. 100-102)

They note that in these various object tracking studies some factors do somewhat effect subject performance. The first factor that affects subject performance is the distance between the objects. The second factor is the amount of time objects stay close to each other (ibid p. 105).

Tracking continues unimpaired even when objects disappear behind a screen. Now as far as I can see this fact seems to support a view of that objects files are subject to constraints like object permanence. But F and P don’t draw this obvious conclusion and seem to think that object files are empty and are little more than indexes.

In his ‘Origins of Objectivity’ Tyler Burge criticises F and P’s interpretation of the experimental data on perception:

In the psychological literature, some authors have taken the indexes in tracking multiple moving objects to represent ‘visual objects’, or two-dimensional ‘visual patterns’  that are ‘reliably associated’ with physical objects, or ‘proximal counterparts of real physical objects’, or ‘proximal features that are precursors in detection of real physical objects. The representa are taken not to be physical bodies or any other environmental entities. I believe that this way of thinking is confused and deeply mistaken about what is being studied. The experiments apply to visual systems that can represent three-dimensionally shaped bodies in three-dimensional space. The representational content of the perceptions is explained, under perceptual anti individualism and in scientific practice, by reference to the perceptual system’s evolutionary relations to bodies and other environmental entities, not merely to proximal counterparts of bodies.” ( Burge: ‘The Origins of Objectivity’ pp 453-454)

Above we can see a paradigm explanation of anti-individualism by Burge. Despite being critical of Millikan and her notion of proper function Burge largely agrees that we need to understand perception in light of proper function. Burge just adds the further proviso that perception isn’t just to be explicated in terms of proper function; understanding veridicality conditions is the key to understanding perception. Burge to some degree relies on the work of Pylyshyn who has done dozens of experiments of perceptual tracking of multiple objects. However, Burge doesn’t agree with Pylyshyn’s interpretation of the experiments. He has criticised Pylyshyn for being ambiguous as to whether the objects of indexical like representations are proximal or distal. Burge obviously thinks that the distal interpretation is the correct one and he thinks that ambiguity about this distinction has led Pylyshyn into making incorrect interpretations of his experiments. Pylyshyn has argued that indexes don’t have to be accompanied with the encoding of any property and Burge strongly disagrees with this interpretation. Burge makes the following point:

“One cannot perceive a particular without perceiving it by way of some general, repeatable grouping capacity to attribute properties, relations kinds verdically” (ibid p. 455)

Burge’s criticism seems on the face of it to be intuitively correct. Pylyshyn offers no realistic story as to how we pick out particulars except speaking of locking on to causal patterns in the environment. It is worth discussing F and P’s arguments in a bit more detail to see if they can handle Burges criticisms. F and P explicate their point as follows:

“So the empiricists were right that there is a robust sense in which theories of perception are at the heart of theories of mind world semantic relations; the relevant  causal relation between a symbol and its referent is relatively direct; perceptual processes are by and large  ‘data driven’ (or to further the computer analogy rather precisely, these processes are “interrupt driven” rather than being initiated by test operations to inputs…) Causal interactions with things in the world give rise to sensory representations, and sensory representation give rise to perceptual beliefs.” (Fodor and Pylyshyn ‘Minds Without Meaning pp. 87-88)

Burge strongly disagrees with F and P on this point and has argued that the computer analogy of something being “interrupt driven” fails. He notes that there is no need to regard “interruption” as referring to anything. Burge claims that if “interruptions” are supposed to refer to distal particulars , it is as unclear how they do so as it is how indexes (or context bound singular applications) can do so, in the absence of perceptually representing the object as being of a certain sort or as having certain properties ( Burge ‘Origins of Objectivity’ p. 455).

Burge’s claim of course directly contradicts F and P’s argument in chapter 4 of their ‘Minds Without Meanings’:

“In short, we think the causal chains that support the reference of mental representations to things-in-the-world are of two distinguishable kinds: the first kind connects distal objects that are within the perceptual circle to perceptual beliefs; the second kind connects distal objects that are outside the perceptual circle to mental representations via causal relations of the first kind” ( ‘Minds Without Meanings’ p. 88)

The main point of disagreement between F and P and Burge is on whether reference within our perceptual circle occurs directly without picking out properties, relations etc. Pylyshyn takes his experimental work to show that such direct reference within the perceptual circle occurs. Pylyshyn’s experimental work centres on what is known as a visual index (( also known as a FINST (fingers of instantiation)). Pylyshyn parses FINST as mental representations which are similar to demonstratives like this and that and he notes that they also resemble proper names, computational pointers, and deictic terms (ibid p. 91). People can track objects extremely fast (once the cardinality is no greater than four), without making mistakes. This ability is not influenced by shape[2], or colour or whether the observers are pre-cued as to where the objects will appear (ibid p.93) When the cardinality is greater than four, subjects require shape, colour and location to track the objects. Furthermore it takes much longer for a subject to track cardinalities greater than four. F and P outline a picture where three distal objects are registered by the eye and this results in three separate object files being created which represent the objects and are used to track the object. This grabbing process involves bare particulars being picked out. Though later on things like properties, colour, etc can be added to the object files. F and P stress that the property assignment occurs after the indexes have been picked out (if at all).

Philosophers like Andy Clark argue that these objects are picked out by specifying a location. But F and P disagree with this claiming that experimental data shows that people can distinguish between objects even if the location of the relevant property tokens is the same for the two of them (ibid p. 96). They go on to note:

The visual system cannot apply property-at-location encoding without first identifying the object to which the properties are ascribed; so it cannot escape individuating objects before it decides which properties belong to which objects” (ibid p. 97)

So on the picture sketched by F and P objects are indexed directly. Of course while they offer evidence that properties are not necessary to pick out objects; they have offered little evidence that to say how exactly the objects are picked out.

Paul Churchland in his 2012 book ‘Plato’s Camera’ raises two main problems with the Indicator Semantics of F and P and these problems are directly relevant to the concerns raised by Burge. Churchland outlines the first problem as follows:

“Specifically, each perceptual concept, C,  is said to acquire or enjoy its semantic content independently of every other concept in its possessor’s repertoire, and independently of whatever knowledge or beliefs, involving C, its possessor may or may not have. This semantic atomism is a simple consequence of the presumed fact that whether or not C bears the required law like connection, to an external feature, that makes its tokenings a reliable indicator of that feature, is a matter that is independent of whether other concepts its possessor may or may not command, and of whatever beliefs he may or may not embrace. Such semantic atomism is entirely plausible…if our prototypical examples of ‘reliable indication’ are the behaviours…such as the thermometer and the voltmeter… But a problem begins to emerge…when we shift to the typical application of our observation terms…face cookie, doll and sock. The problem is simple. There are no laws of nature that comprehend these things qua faces, cookies, dolls or socks. All of these features, to be sure have causal effect on the sensory apparatus of humans, but those effects are diffuse, context dependent, high-dimensional, and very hard to distinguish, as a class, from the class of perceptual effects that arise from many other things. ( ‘Plato’s Camera pp. 95-96)

Obviously in ‘Plato’s Camera’ he outlines connectionist models showing how they can handle learning complex facts. One of the jewels in his explication is how connectionist models can learn to recognise faces through Cottrell’s mature face network. Churchland notes that the upshot of these connectionist models is that there is an irreducibly holistic factor in learning. So he argues that his multidimensional models show empirically that Fodor and Pylyshyn are wrong in thinking that conceptual atomism is true in any interesting sense. For Churchland the empirical facts indicate that beyond trivial thermostat type stuff conceptual atomism is impossible. In other words, he argues, that thermostat, voltmeter type stuff is not really an example of having a concept; and when we move to actual concepts we are stuck with the holism of connectionist models. He offers a slogan “no representation without at least some comprehension” (ibid p. 97)

Churchland’s second problem with Indicator Semantics is as follows:

All of this serves to highlight what Indicator Semantics is inclined to suppress and is ill equipped to explain, namely, that one and the same objective domain can be, and typically will be differently conceived or understood by distinct individuals and cultures at the level of our spontaneous perceptual comprehension” (ibid p. 102)

This is the problem we began with; ostensive definitions require a lot of stage setting. Churchland thinks connectionist models provide this stage setting. Clark (2016) thinks Bayesian learning can provide the stage setting. Tyler Burge on the other hand opts for innate domain specific constraints, to solve the stage setting problem. The debate between these thinkers to some degree centres on whether their learning theory is sufficient to explain objective reference and conceptual capacities. Because Clark and Churchland do not attempt to deal with developmental facts of when children begin to perceive objects, how they perceive these objects and how their conceptual understanding of the world develops their models remain untested. In this sense Burge’s learning theory has a serious advantage over its rivals in that it at least tries to account for the salient facts. That said it is at least possible that when they use their different approaches on actual developmental data Churchland and Clark’s models may accurately describe the process of objective reference and development of conceptual capacities. If this were to happen then their approaches would have an advantage over Burge’s because their approaches are more easily integrated with neuroscience while Burge’s approach involves an irreducible psychological aspect.

This state of affairs would appear to leave F and P in an extremely untenable position. Their use of FINST is well supported experimentally, though the indexes don’t seem to be as encapsulated and automatic as F and P seem to want us to believe. Furthermore there seems to be no way we can interpret the FINST as picking out one object over many alternative models. F and P however argue that direct reference is not the only process at work that compositional constraints on the way concepts can come together will rule out the many alternative interpretations of concepts (ibid p. 128-131). Unfortunately, they don’t manage to provide any evidence to support this conjecture. Ultimately they are left with a kind of hopeful monster. They think that direct reference is necessary in order to have a naturalistic theory of mind, and they argue that FINST provides this direct reference. However the empirical data indicates that while the FINST does have a certain amount of autonomy it is certainly not entirely isolated from all comprehension.



Burge, T. 2010. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carey, S. 2009. The Origin of Concepts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Churchland, P. M. 2012. Plato’s Camera: How the Physical Brain Captures a Landscape of Abstract Universals. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.

Clark, A. 2016. Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action and the Embodied Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fodor, J and Pylyshyn, Z. 2015. Minds without Meanings: An Essay on the Content of Concepts. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.

[1] Henceforth F and P.

[2] Pylyshn notes that shape can have some effect when the shape is something familiar like a square.