Artisan Philosophy in Dublin, Ireland and elsewhere This little work, ‘Plato’s Seventh Letter and the Artisan Workbook Method in Philosophy’, presents a way of doing philosophy by means of workbooks. The method is briefly described in the Introduction and is set out more fully in Part 2, which contains summaries of a number of workbooks which lend themselves to being used by the method. Part 1 is an essay on Plato’s Seventh Letter [=7th], which aims to show the importance of the 7th but also the value of the workbook method. Published works tend to have too much armour, be too bullet-proof. But surely the primary purpose of a written work should be to advance understanding and help the reader or student, not protect the writer or teacher. And the writers of the workbooks, summarized in Part 2, believe they can stay closer to their own honest thinking, to what they are trying to say, not by satisfying the formal conditions of publication, which can be too concerned with linguistic or pedantic perfection in uniformity and footnotes, or with the aims of commercial publishers. A workbook, as understood here, is a text produced by a competent philosopher who loves philosophy and believes he knows something of value which he hasn’t been able to convey adequately in a text, despite his repeated efforts. But he feels that his text can do some good, in its interim workbook form, if it, or parts of it, are made accessible to some readers. And most imporantly, unlike authors of published books, he does not leave his text helpless, but is available to make his meaning clearer to its readers, either in person or in emails. So while a workbook is less polished and finished than published works, it should be more alive and living for the writer and so more likely to be so for the reader as well. A copy of David Berman’s work on Artisan Philosophy can be obtained by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org<mailto:email@example.com> or firstname.lastname@example.org
In this blog-post I will briefly discuss Skinner’s take on metaphor. At the end of his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ Skinner discussed an incident that led him to writing the book. While having dinner with philosopher Alfred North Whitehead a discussion of behaviourism ensued. Skinner’s role in this discussion was to defend and explicate behavioural psychology. Near the end of the discussion Whitehead conceded that behavioural psychology was a useful approach to understanding human behaviour. Nonetheless Whitehead argued that one area where he didn’t think behaviourism would be successful is in explaining verbal behaviour. Whitehead gave Skinner a challenge he asked Skinner to explain Whitehead saying ‘No black scorpion is falling on this table’. The next day Skinner started working on ‘Verbal Behaviour’ a project which took him twenty years.
Skinner obviously knew that giving a scientific answer as to why Whitehead spoke the sentence he did was out of the question. Whitehead spoke during a conversation and not in an experimentally controlled environment. So while Skinner could try to offer an educated guess as to why Whitehead spoke that particular sentence, such an explanation would fall far short of a scientific explanation. Skinner noted that this is analogous to the way a physicist could offer some kind of explanation of a temperature dropping in the room on the night Skinner and Whitehead spoke but that such an explanation would be conjectural. No one would argue that that physics stands or falls based on being able to accurately account for every contingent event in our daily experience and similar considerations should apply to behaviourism. Behaviourists when working in a lab can set up controlled environments to help with prediction and control; but behaviour outside of the lab is more difficult to predict and control. Hence Skinner didn’t devote much time to trying to answer Whiteheads challenge to account for him saying ‘No black scorpion is falling on the table’.
Skinner did very briefly try to answer Whitehead’s challenge at the end of the book. While Skinner admits that we will probably never know precisely what environmental contingencies led to Whitehead mouthing the particular sentence; he nevertheless gave a rough reply to Whitehead. It is worth looking at Skinner’s reply to as it is a nice illustration of Skinner’s views on metaphors.
Skinner noted that Whitehead obviously spoke the particular sentence that he did as a way of providing a counter example to behaviourism; the sentence was spoken because it wasn’t obvious that it was controlled by environmental contingencies. However, if Whitehead wanted to use a sentence that wasn’t controlled by particular environmental contingencies then he could have chosen any from a potential infinity of sentences. There seems to be no rhyme or reason why Whitehead said ‘scorpion’ rather than ‘dinosaur’ or ‘wheelbarrow’ or any other type of word.
Skinner tries to understand Whitehead saying what he said by relying on a deterministic assumption. He assumes that whether we can discover what precisely caused the behaviour it is safe to say that there is some cause. Now obviously this assumption is question begging when one is arguing with a person who doesn’t accept determinism. For the sake of argument we will grant Skinner his un- argued assumption of determinism. But this only gives the vaguest of explanations. We can assume that there was some cause of Whitehead’s verbal behaviour but such an assumption doesn’t give us the conclusion that an explanation of the sentence must be a behaviourist explanation. Freud, who Skinner mentioned in this context, was a determinist, but there is no reason to think that he would have accepted a radical behaviourist account of why Whitehead said what he did. So I would argue that even if we give Skinner his un-argued assumption of determinism we still are a long way from demonstrating that a radical behaviourist explanation of Whitehead’s sentence is the correct one.
With his deterministic assumption in place, Skinner goes on to offer a further conjecture as to why Whitehead said what he did. Skinner notes that the inexorable march of science has struck many blows for man’s image of his place in the universe. Copernicus showed that the earth is not the centre of the universe, Darwin showed that that humans are not above the animals but are rather a part of the animal kingdom, Freud showed that our ego isn’t the sole agent of our actions, while Skinner showed that our behaviours which we previously thought we could attribute to free choice, were actually determined by environmental contingencies. Whether Skinner and Freud belong on a list with Darwin and Copernicus is open to debate. But at the time Skinner was talking to Whitehead I think it would have been a fair assessment of how people viewed psychoanalysis and behavioural science. They did seem to be challenging folk theories about how the mind worked and eroding cherished moral concepts which centred on a belief in freewill. So I think that it is not implausible that Whitehead may at some level have viewed behaviourism as a threat to cherished philosophical beliefs.
Skinner claimed that Whitehead implicitly viewing behaviourism as a threat may have affected his choice of words:
“I suggest, then, that black scorpion was a metaphorical response to the topic under discussion. The black scorpion was behaviourism.” (Verbal Behaviour p. 458)
It is somewhat plausible that Whitehead viewed behaviourism as a threat but it is a stretch to go from him holding this view implicitly and it determining him to pick a particular metaphor. To try to throw some bones on this suggestion it helps to think through how Skinner conceived of the nature of metaphor. Skinner analysed metaphors and categorised them as a type of tact, and distinguished metaphors from other linguistic devices such as generalised tacts, abstractions etc.
When discussing metaphors Skinner argued that certain type of extension takes place because of the control exercised by properties of the stimulus which, though present at reinforcement, do not enter into the contingency respected by the verbal community. This is what is traditionally called metaphor. Past theorists have argued that metaphor is made possible by a special faculty of analogical reasoning. But Skinner doesn’t think that we need to posit a faculty of analogical reasoning. He argues that his three term contingency (Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence) is sufficient to account for our ability to engage in metaphorical extension.
He discusses various different examples of metaphors one of which involves a child tasting soda and saying that it tasted like my foot was asleep. Skinner’s analysis is that “My foots asleep” has been conditioned under circumstances that involve two conspicuous stimulus conditions (1) The Partial immobility of the foot, (2) A certain pin point stimulation. The property which the community reinforces is the immobility. But the private pin point stimulation is also important for the child. The similarity between the pin point stimulation and the stimulation evoked by drinking the soda is what caused the child to say “it tastes like my foot is asleep”. He claims that a metaphorical tact in which both properties are public may be analysed in a similar way.
Skinner’s view that a metaphor is sometimes controlled by two types of stimuli, (1) publically observable facts that will be reinforced by the community and (2) private idiosyncratic experiences, means that he thinks that unusual metaphors may offer insights as to an author’s unique experiences. Thus when speaking of the metaphorical expressions of writers Skinner argues as follows:
“The metaphorical expressions of a given speaker or writer reflect the kinds of stimuli which most often control his behaviour. This fact is commonly used in inferring conditions about the life of a writer either when such facts are not otherwise known or in order to establish authorship.”(ibid p. 95)
Skinner goes on to argue that metaphors are typically employed in literature while in science the extended tact is typically employed. While Skinner doesn’t deny that scientists use metaphor he thinks that the practical nature of science aims at eventually removing metaphors. Our ordinary language when we talk with each other is shot through with metaphors in this sense it is closer to literature than it is to science.
In the case of Whitehead the conjecture is that ‘Black Scorpion’ was reinforced when used in particular circumstances and in relation to other words. It is possible that when Whitehead learned the word; he learned it as a tact, where the use of the word ‘black scorpion’ was reinforced when said in the presence of a picture of a black scorpion. It is also possible that the word ‘black scorpion’ was reinforced when it was associated in relation to other words and hence it was an Intraverbal. Thus a child who categorised black scorpions as dangerous things would have been reinforced.
So if we make the guess that Whitehead like most other people would have been reinforced for thinking of a black scorpion as a dangerous thing, then this points us towards a reason why black scorpions came to his mind. Skinner speculates as follows:
“It is possible, then, that as I described my position-doubtless in the most shocking terms I could command-he was telling himself that that the part which he had played in encouraging me as a young scholar was not entirely misguided, that I was probably not typical of all young men in psychology and the social sciences, that there must be a brighter side-in other words, that on this pleasant and stimulating table no black scorpion had fallen.” (ibid p.459)
Skinner then views Whitehead as respecting Skinner but being shocked by what he viewed as a dangerous doctrine. Thinking of the dangerous doctrine brought to mind another dangerous thing; a black scorpion. But since Whitehead couldn’t bring himself to think of Skinner as a defender of such a dangerous doctrine he negated the proposition that ‘A black scorpion was falling on the table’; to ‘no black scorpion is falling on the table’. Whiteheads sentence then according to Skinner was an expression of sensing danger in Skinner’s behaviourism but not being able to square this danger with Skinner the man.
There is no way to say for certain whether Skinner’s account of why Whitehead chose the particular sentence that he did was correct. But Skinner never intended to prove that his speculative story was correct. Rather Skinner just wanted a proof of concept. He was trying to show in a speculative manner a possible way of explaining Whitehead’s behaviour. On Skinner’s conception of science we could only study actual linguistic usage in a scientific manner by doing tightly controlled lab experiments and his Verbal Behaviour was a call to action as a way for future behavioural scientists to study language.
In a paper now 60 years old ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’ Gregory Bateson the brilliant anthropologist discussed the topics of communication, the logic communication follows, and how communication implicitly works in a psychotherapeutic setting. Bateson drew evidence from work in mathematical logic, observation of animal behaviour, and psychotherapeutic data. In this blog-post I will discuss Bateson’s interpretation of animal behaviour and how his interpretation of animal behaviour influences his views on psychotherapeutic treatment.
Bateson gives the evolutionary conjecture that our current linguistic capacities may have arisen out of the capacity of non-human animals to engage in play, to issue threats, and deceit. These forms of behaviour indicate that the animal is not merely using a signal to denote internal mood or external object. Rather the behaviour is meta-communicative. If you consider a common form of behaviour in dogs the ‘Play-bow’, where the dog stands in front of the owner and bows the front part of the body as he stares intently on his owner. This form of behaviour is typically engaged in when the dog wants to engage in play. Once the dog has indicated he is playing with the ‘play bow’ the dog will then pretend to fight, or run away to indicate he wants to be chased etc. Here is a short video showing two dogs using the ‘play bow’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jf3Tzx1ooIM .
The ‘play-bow’ has been well studied scientifically Hare and Woods describe it as follows:
“Dog’s frequently use visual signals to communicate with others during their natural interactions. When dogs are playing, careful observations have shown that gestures such as play bows (dropping the chest to the ground and preparing to spring back at the first sigh of a chase) are used to signal that their behaviour is meant in good fun. Where a quick approach and forceful contact might usually lead to aggression, the same behaviour preceded by a play bow leads to a friendly response. When other dogs see a play bow, they can agree to the game with another visual gesture. They usually do this using a ‘self-handicapping’ gesture that makes them more vulnerable (rolling on their back). This means that dogs might flexibly use visual gestures to communicate, perhaps even more than vocal behaviour. ” (Hare and Woods ‘The Genius of Dogs’ p. 136)
John Bradshaw notes the same structural features of the ‘Play-bow’ as Hare and Woods and notes that dog play differs depending on whether dogs are playing with other dogs or with humans:
“In short, dogs appear to be in a completely different frame of mind depending on whether they are playing with a person or another dog. When the play-partner is a dog, possession of the toy seems to be most important- and indeed, it is possible that competitive play is one way that dogs assess each other’s strength and character…When the play-partner is a person, however, possession of the toy seems almost irrelevant; the important thing is the social contact that the game produces. This finding is entirely compatible with the observation that dogs are unable to calm one another down, but can be calmed by their owners. It also indicates that dogs put humans in a completely different mental category from other dogs.” (John Bradshaw ‘In Defence of Dogs’ p. 204)
We can see from these descriptions that dogs can indicate when they are about to engage in play and can modify their play depending on who they are playing with.
Bateson noted that there is an interesting logic to animal play. Thus suppose a dog nips another dog on the ear while playing with him; Bateson would parse this as follows ‘These actions in which we now engage, do not denote what would be denoted by those actions which these actions denote’ (Bateson: ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’ p. 4). In other words the playful nip denotes the bite, but it doesn’t denote what would be denoted by the bite (ibid p. 4). Bateson’s interpretation of the logic of play behaviour is interesting as an analysis of the behaviour, but it becomes less convincing if we view it as a description of the animal’s psychological processes.
When a dog does a ‘play-bow’ is there any good reason to think that the dog is explicitly using it to indicate that all further actions within this frame are taking place on a different logical level? Here it is helpful to draw a distinction that Michael Devitt makes in his (2006) ‘Ignorance of language’:
“In sum, to be a processing rule that governs the activities of a chess player, logic machine or dancing bee is one thing, to be a structure rule governing the outputs of such activities is another. And a structure rule of the outputs may have no place among the processing rules that produce these outputs” (Devitt: ‘Ignorance of Language’ p. 21)
Devitt notes that while scientists were able to discover structural rules in the Bee’s waggle dance; this still left them with a hard job of discovering the processing rules that are used to cause the dance. It isn’t a priori true that the processing rules used by the Bee must represent or even embody the structural rules; rather all that is needed is that the processing rules respect the structural rules. A similar argument holds in the case of animal play behaviour; just because we can analyse the behaviour as having certain structural properties doesn’t mean that we should a priori assume that the animal’s behaviour is caused by processing rules that do anything more than respect the structure rules.
Bateson seems to think that when engaging in play the animal is capable of recognising that this play is similar to non-play behaviour. Thus in Bateson’s example of a dog playfully nipping another dog in play; Bateson thinks that the dog recognises that the nip is similar to a bite done in anger. The dog recognises that the play nip though similar in structure to an angry bite is different. Furthermore the dog knows that the other dog he is playing with can recognise the distinction as well.
Now while it is entirely possible that the Bateson’s hypothesis is the correct one, it should be acknowledged that simpler explanations of the dog’s behaviour are possible which don’t attribute such complex propositional attitude thought processes to the animal. At the very least we need some further experimental data to help us decide between Bateson’s hypotheses and simpler rival explanations.
In his 1991 paper ‘Bateson’s concept of “Metacommunication” in Play’ Robert Mitchell noted that it is unclear whether animals recognise that their play is similar to fighting behaviour:
“Do organisms recognize that their partner simulates other actions? This one question is actually two: Do organisms distinguish between the simulated actions in play and the actions they simulate? Symons (1978 p. 124) answers the first question affirmatively for monkeys: “both the human observer and other monkeys can almost always distinguish playfighting and fighting.” The organism’s differentiation between simulation and that which is simulated (see Fagen, 1981, p. 356) need not be evidence of the organism’s knowledge of the simulation as such, since it fails to tell us whether or not the animal recognizes the similarities amid the differences, that is whether or not the simulation represents or refers to the simulated thing for the organism. If an organism recognizes that s (the simulation) is a simulation of f, then they recognise that s is not f…Thus, the significant question is whether or not organisms ever recognize the similarity or “sameness” between simulation and simulated actions of another while also recognising the difference between them.” (Mitchell, R ‘Bateson’s concept of “Metacommunication” in Play’ p. 79)
Mitchell thinks that evidence of dogs trying to avoid being deceived by their owner in games of “fake out” is good evidence that the dogs engage in dual recognition of both literal and play moves (Mitchell and Thompson, 1991). However the evidence provided by Mitchell is inconclusive at best. So as it stands we don’t have conclusive evidence as to whether animals understand play in the way Bateson suggests. Furthermore it is pretty sloppy to even speak of animal cognitive capacities in relation to play given the different capacities of animals. However, even when we specify and just speak of a particular species such as the domestic dog, we are no closer to understanding whether Bateson’s conjecture is accurate about the understanding dogs have of the meaning of play.
Obviously a valuable heuristic to work with is to adopt the simplest explanation of the behaviour consistent with our current knowledge. Thus Daniel Dennett in his recent book ‘From Bacteria to Bach and Back’ discusses complex animal behaviour which appear perfectly rational and he shows ways that we can explain this behaviour without implausibly attributing to the animal representations of the reasons for this behaviour. Thus Dennett discusses cases such as Cuckoo’s dropping their eggs in the nest of another bird. When the baby Cuckoo is born he proceeds to push the bird’s eggs out of the nest with the “aim” that the bird will use all its resources to feed the baby Cuckoo. While there is no reason to assume that the baby Cuckoo represents reasons for his behaviour; we can appeal to what Dennett calls ‘Free-floating-Rationales’ to explain his actions. In this sense we can argue that there is a reason for the baby Cuckoo’s behaviour even though the reason wasn’t represented by any subject. These reasons can be discovered by theorists after the fact who use ‘reverse-engineering’ to discover the evolutionary logic that makes sense of the Cuckoo’s behaviour. Dennett uses this logic to explain the behaviour of other animals without attributing complex propositional attitudes to animal; thus he explains antelope stotting by using the logic of natural selection and ‘free-floating-rationales’. Antelope stotting is when Antelopes leap up in the air while being chased. The Antelopes who engage in stotting are less likely to be eaten by the Lion chasing them. Dennett notes that it is possible to tell a story where the Antelope realises that Antelopes who stot are less likely to get eaten and hence the Antelope decides to stot. Likewise it is possible to view the Lion as reasoning that creatures who can jump that high are likely to present more of a struggle than those who don’t stot hence the Lion avoids attacking stotting Antelopes. But Dennett skilfully shows that we can explain the behaviour of the Antelopes and the Lions without attributing these representational states by appealing to the logic of natural selection
(Dennett ‘From Bacteria to Bach and Back pp. 89-90). Dennett goes on to argue that competence without comprehension is nature’s way; beavers can build dams without representing reasons as to how to build them; birds can build nests without representing explicit plans as to how to build them; the same is true of termites building termite castles. So Dennett reasons plausibly enough that we shouldn’t attribute comprehension to creatures unless we have compelling reasons to do so.
Dennett’s logic can be used in the dog play case as well. There may be evolutionary reasons why dogs play together but the dogs don’t have to represent these reasons. Dogs can have competence in playing without necessarily having any comprehension as to why they play. It is easy enough to give an evolutionary explanation as to why dogs need to play interms of social bonding, practicing fighting etc without assuming that the dog ever represents these reasons or understands them at a meta-level like Bateson suggests. Obviously, using Dennett’s evolutionary logic to offer a simpler explanation of Dog play doesn’t settle the issue on whether Bateson is correct or not. To settle this issue detailed experimental data is needed. However despite their being good experimental studies on dog cognition ( see Hare, Tomasello, and Call), there is not as of yet sufficient data to decide the issue.
This issue isn’t just restricted to discussions of animal cognition. The issue actually extends into issues in mental illness. Bateson’s logical analysis of animal play was extended in a sloppy way into understanding children’s play, and even into understanding mental illness in general. Bateson argued that people, like non-human animals, often slipped between different logical levels when in conversation. He believed that some mental illnesses could be better understood if we could understand the different logical levels of communication. So Bateson’s understanding of animal cognition influenced how he understood mental illness in humans as well.
Even today our understanding of mental illness is filtered through our understanding of non-human animals. In his book ‘Anxious’ neuroscientist Joseph Le Doux criticised the Darwinian theory of emotions one of the primary exemplars of which is the late Jaap Panksepp. Panksepp described all mammals as sharing the same basic emotional systems: Seeking, Rage, Fear, Care, Play etc. Le Doux argues that the evidence that Panksepp provides to indicate that all mammals share the same emotional systems, is consistent with these non-human animals engaging in instinctive behaviours without necessarily experiencing anything like human emotions. Le Doux argues that while the evidence clearly indicates that threats do release innate behavioural responses and physiological patterns, but that attributing to animals reacting in these ways feelings of fear is an interpretation that goes well beyond the facts. Le Doux champions the view that fear in humans are psychological constructions that heavily depend on our linguistic abilities. Le Doux describes the difference between him and Panksepp as follows:
“The main difference between my view and Panksepp’s is therefore, whether subcortical systems are directly responsible for primitive emotional feelings or instead are responsible for nonconscious factors that are integrated with other information in cortical areas to give rise to conscious feelings. What Panksepp calls cognitive feelings, are I maintain, what feelings are. The subcortical states are, as he also says at times, “truly unconscious” and thus not feelings at all. They are, in my view, nonconscious motivational states.” (Anxious p. 150)
“The evolutionary function of this ancient capacity is not to generate emotions like fear or anxiety, but simply to help ensure that the organism’s life continues beyond the present…Survival circuits do not exist to make emotions (feelings). They instead manage interactions with the environment as part of the daily quest to survive” (ibid pp 43-44)
Le Doux argues that medication that works on rats to help them overcome things like freezing when threatened may have some behavioural effects on human behaviour but they may not touch on the actual emotional feelings which are heavily tied up into linguistic and cortical systems. Obviously I will not here be able to decide between whether Panksepp, or Le Doux are right on this complex issue (I have discussed the topic elsewhere: https://www.academia.edu/29575444/Le_Doux_Anxiety_and_Neuropsychoanalysis ). My primary reason for bringing it up is because it further illustrates how our interpretation of the behaviour of non-human animals will influence our understanding of topics like mental illness. At this moment in time we have competing interpretations of animals which differ on the degree to which we are justified in attributing consciousness to them, or the degree to which we are justified in attributing propositional attitude explanations of their behaviour etc. While heuristic advice such as Dennett’s (basically an updated version of Occam’s Razor applied to animal ethnology) is useful it can only take us so far. To decide the issue we need detailed experiments. Hypotheses such as Bateson’s are useful in that they propose models which can then be tested using rigorous experiments. But this experimental probing is in its infancy so progress is likely to be slow. Below is a brilliant example of different theoretical models of cognition (Jerry Fodor vs Donald Davidson) leading to some great experimental work https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qdG1HHnmhA . One can only hope that whether right or wrong Bateson’s hypothesis inspires future experimental work.
In a recent blog-post Massimo Pigliucci discussed the case of philosophical counselling and addressed some criticisms that it was a pseudo-science. Pigliucci addressed these criticisms in a balanced manner and his responses were largely convincing. Basically he argued that philosophical counselling could be thought of in two ways (1) As a type of therapy and (2) As a type of life coaching. Pigliucci argues once it is understood that philosophical counselling is not a form of therapy but a form of life coaching; criticisms of it for being a pseudoscience dissolve. While I found a lot to agree with in Pigluicci’s analysis, I felt his demarcation between therapy and life coaching was a bit too quick and blurred some important conceptual distinctions. However before discussing these conceptual distinctions I will first address Pigliucci discussion of the nature of therapy and his comparison of psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioural science.
When discussing two forms of therapy he distinguishes between Freudian Psychoanalysis and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. He makes the claim that while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is well supported scientifically some philosophers think that Freudian Psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience. A couple of points need to be made about this claim. Firstly while the cliché still exists that psychoananalysis is unsupported by empirical evidence while Cbt is not; there is not as much substance to this cliché as some believe. While it is true that CBT has historically been subject to more empirical testing than Psychoanalysis this is changing; a lot of long term studies exist which demonstrate that Psychoanalysis is as effective as CBT. In this utube clip https://youtu.be/IQBx5TONHac ‘The Case for Psychoanalysis’ Dr John Thor Cornelius brings a lot of impressive comparative studies of the long term treatment with CBT and Psychoanalysis. And Cornelius finds that both forms of therapy perform at a par, except in the long term where psychoanalysis out performs CBT. In the paper by ‘The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Dr Johathan Shedler again offers compelling evidence of the comparative effectiveness https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/amp-65-2-98.pdf. In the website of The Neuropsychoanalytic Association further evidence for the utility of psychoanalytic psychotherapy is provided. https://npsa-association.org/education-training/suggested-reading/the-efficacy-of-psychoanalyticpsychodynamic-therapies-reading-list/. Now this evidence is obviously only the tip of the iceberg and there is some dispute about the various different studies that have been done. I present it just to counterbalance the implicit suggestion by Pigluicci that psychoanalytic psychotherapy is not evidence based.
Pigluicci’s claim that some philosophers think that psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience is certainly true. A prominent proponent of this view was the philosopher Karl Popper whose criticism of psychoanalysis was that it was not falsifiable. Popper noted that the core sciences made precise claims that were falsifiable in principle. Thus he noted the falsifiable aspect of the theory of relativity where light bending around the moon in a particular way at a particular time was a potential way of disproving the theory of relativity. Popper went on to note that a theory is never totally confirmed to be correct it is just becomes better corroborated as it passes more tests. Popper contrasted this scientific behaviour with the behaviour of psychoanalysts and Marxists who claimed to engaging in science. Popper argued that no possible empirical evidence could possibly refute either psychoanalysis or Marxism. It was this supposed dogmatic resistance to refutation that Popper believed stopped psychoanalysis from being a science.
Now two points need to be made here. The first is to do with Popper’s falisificationist principle. The principle has come under heavy attack from philosophers such as Kuhn, Feyerabend and Quine. Most philosophers today do not accept Popper’s so called gold standard to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. Furthermore practicing scientists today have serious disagreements about the importance of Popper’s gold standard to distinguish science from pseudoscience. In linguistics critics of Generative Grammar note how the theory is shielded from falisification by ad-hoc reasoning. The defenders of generative grammar note that Poppers criterion is at odds with actual scientific practice. Thus defenders of generative grammar argue that they are simply adopting the Galilean method which has no use for naive falsification. Now this debate gets very heated and I we don’t have time to go into it here. I mention it to illustrate that Popper’s philosophy of science is not accepted both by a lot of philosophers and by a lot of scientists. So his falsification argument cannot be assumed to be an automatic defeater of the scientific status of psychoanalysis.
But even if we did accept Popper’s criterion as one hundred percent correct it still doesn’t demonstrate that Psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience. This is because Popper never backed up his criticisms of psychoanalysis with any actual psychoanalytic texts, case studies etc. This fact surprises a lot of people. Those who have never read Popper think that he somehow demolished the scientific status of psychoanalysis. But this is not true. In fact throughout his various different critiques of psychoanalysis he provides absolutely no textual evidence to support his claims that psychoanalysis is unfalisifiable in principle. The most we get is a mention of a very casual conversation he had with the psychoanalyst Adler. This anecdotal evidence of Popper’s does seem to show that Adler was dogmatically assuming the truth of the theory come what may. But obviously an anecdote is not sufficient to refute an entire discipline. Pigliucci notes the weakness of anecdotes in his blog-post: I think
“This is somewhat problematic, because it doesn’t distinguish between the academic practice of PC and what some of the counselors may say in an informal setting. It also means that a study that criticizes PC for lack of rigor and evidence based methodology suffers, in substance, from similar issues.” (Philosophical Counseling as Pseudo-science)
I think Piguliucci’s criticism could apply just as much to Popper to as it does to Roxana and Gerardo. Of course Pigliucci doesn’t explicitly say he is relying on Popper’s criticisms of psychoanalysis he merely notes that some philosophers of science think it is pseudoscience. It is true that some philosophers are critical of the scientific status of psychoanalysis. But it is difficult to assess whether they are right until Pigliucci states who they are and what aspects of their arguments he finds compelling. Saying that some philosophers think psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience isn’t saying too much. Some philosophers think the same of evolutionary theory (for example Popper in his early days), but this fact wouldn’t convince many people that evolutionary theory is not a scientific theory.
I should note that I agree that there are some problems with psychoanalysis. Freud’s psychosexual stages of development are almost certainly false. Interestingly Psychoanalyst Daniel Stern in his ‘The Interpersonal World of the Infant’, rejects some of Freud’s speculative developmental theories and replaces them with worked a combination of detailed observation of children and theories drawn from modern developmental psychology. This fact makes it difficult to take seriously charges that psychoanalytic theory is unfalisifiable. Responsible theorists modify the theory as they learn new facts. There will always be people who refuse to modify their theories as they learn more about the world but such people unfortunately exist in all areas of scientific research.
Another difficulty with psychoanalysis is its reliance on implausible homunculus such as censors, egos, super-egos etc. Again even here there is some interesting philosophical research done to integrate psychoanalysis with standard cognitive science. A good example of this work is Vesa Talvite’s book ‘Freudian Unconscious and Cognitive Neuroscience’ which treats things like ‘censors’ using Dennett’s stance-stance approach. In sum psychoanalysis is in better shape than Pigliucci wants to acknowledge; though it like any field of inquiry it still has its problems.
Thus far I have been arguing that psychoanalysis and CBT are on a par with each other in terms of their scientific status. But I have been presenting psychoanalysis as too narrow a field. Not every psychoanalyst conceives it as a scientific discipline. Some psychoanalysts rather conceptualise their subject as a form of hermeneutics while others wed the theory to existentialism and phenomenology as opposed to biology. These psychoanalysts reject a lot of Freud’s mechanistic explanations and focus instead on the intersubjective clinical setting where clients reveal themselves to their therapist.
It is interesting when developing his claim that Philosophical Counselling is a form of life coaching Pigliucci notes that it is a humanistic discipline and one that doesn’t make claims of efficacy. The reason for this he argues is that efficaciousness will vary from person to person, depending on the needs of the client and the philosophical approach both the client and the counsellor find useful. He also notes that Philosophical Counselling as a form of life coaching doesn’t deal with actual psychopathology and that this is a key difference between it and therapy. He further notes ordinary problems of life should not be medicalized.
Philosophical counselling in this sense sounds somewhat like the type of psychoanalysis favoured by intersubjective system theorist Robert Stolorow. Stolorow psychoanalysis which he calls Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis is built upon the work of Martin Heidegger ( ‘World, Affectivity, Trauma’ is a good introduction to Stolorow’s work). There are some similarities with his approach and the approach of the philosophical councillor. Both would reject efficacy studies, as the therapy involves an intersubjective relation between two people engaging in a conversation about real world problems. Both do not consider psychoanalysis a science. Both reject the medicalization of ordinary experiences like trauma, death, loneliness etc. A real point of departure is that psychoanalysts like treat people with psychopathologies whereas philosophical counsellors do not ( I have further discussed existential psychoanalysis here for people looking for more data https://www.academia.edu/12757211/Philosophy_of_Psychoanalysis https://www.academia.edu/12377965/Freud_Existentialism_and_The_Philosophy_of_Mind .
Pigliucci argues that philosophical counsellors should not treat patients with psychopathologies because of their lack of scientific credentials. One wonders how he views existentialist psychoanalysts who regularly work with patients who suffer from mental illness but who claim to not be scientists. The longitudinal studies indicate that there is little difference in whether the therapist is a psychoanalyst (of the scientific persuasion) or existential psychoanalysts, or cognitive behavioural therapists. So from a pragmatic point of view the therapists are doing as much good in helping their patients as their counterparts in other therapeutic schools. Although I would imagine that such studies would not impress the existential psychotherapists who are interested in individual client analyst interaction not some generalization that ignores these differences. But someone like Pigliucci would place some stock in these type of studies and so cannot easily dismiss existential psychotherapists even though they claim to not be engaging in science. Overall I think that it is worth reflecting that some therapeutic practices may be closer to the practices of philosophical counsellors than they are to scientific therapies.
“To my own surprise, I’ve come to believe that there is an element of truth in the apparently less plausible Platonic story that’s easy to miss, one that seems to be almost completely obscured by the paradox that both Quine and Plato have described. It isn’t that our languages were deliberately invented by particular groups of people, legislators of syndics in the formal sense of these words, sitting around particular tables, at particular times in the past. It seems to me that they’re more like our dogs, our wolfhounds and sheepdogs and dachshunds, our retrievers, and pointers and greyhounds. We didn’t invent them exactly, but our ancestors did repeatedly make deliberate more or less rational choices in the process that made them what they are today, choices among a long series of slightly incrementally different variants, unconsciously shaping the dogs into precisely what their human breeders needed them to be. ( Cloud: The Domestication of Language p. 8)
Dennett’s chapter on the evolution of language is very vague. Dennett notes from the outset that discovering the origins of language is one of the major unsolved problems in science on a par with explaining the origins of life. His explication of the origins of language is meant as a general sketch of how a naturalistic account of the evolution of language could occur without any of what he calls “a skyhook”. By “a skyhook” he typically means some kind of miracle. In that sense his theory of language while vague is truistic as every adult doing research on the evolution of language rules out miracles. But Dennett also classes Chomsky’s theory as a skyhook; as he views it as an improbable theory or hopeful monster with little evidence to support it. In this regard I think Dennett’s reasoning is very weak he sketches his own vague theory about how the evolution of language occurred and offers a critique of Chomsky that is little more than a caricature.
Dennett segments the chapter on the origin of language into two sections
(1) The Chicken-Egg problem:
In the first section he argues that all he needs for the purpose of his book is a bird’s eye view on various different takes on the evolution of language. He notes that language may originally have been an ungainly mess that was later streamlined by evolution. As always in thinking about the origin of an entity or behaviour Dennett asks the question who benefited from the proliferation of languages? He notes that scholars traditionally would claim that people were the beneficiaries of language but Dennett argues that when we take the memetic point of view another approach becomes possible. Dennett argues that in the beginning language may have been more of a hindrance than a help.
He gives a list some of the key functions that language served: (1) Communicative Utility (2)Productivity (3) Digitality (4) Displaced Reference (5) Ease of Acquisition. He briefly considers the possibility a key precursor to language would have been the unique way humans co-operate (a possibility discussed in detail in Tomasello 2014) and goes onto discuss the work of Boyd and Richardson on the precursors to language. Dennett notes that in our search for precursors we should open minded to precursors that weren’t necessarily immediately beneficial to humans:
“Instead of looking only at the prerequisite competences our ancestors needed to have in order for language to get underway, perhaps we should also consider vulnerabilities that might make our ancestors the ideal hosts for infectious but nonvirulent habits (memes) that allowed us to live and stay mobile long enough for them to replicate through our populations.” ( Dennett ‘From Bacteria to Bach and Back’ p. 254)
He asks us to consider the possibility that language was at first like a virus that infected us. He argues that the memes which stood the constant selection pressures of their environment; the ones who survived, would be structured in such a manner that they would fit the brains of their human hosts better than the other memes that didn’t pass selection muster. As a result of this he claims:
“Innovations in memes that made them more effective reproducers in brains that were not yet well designed for dealing with them could provide the early “proof of concept” that would underwrite, in effect, the more expensive and time-consuming genetic adjustments in brain hardware that would improve the working conditions for both memes and their hosts” ( ibid p. 255)
Given that culture is such a key feature of what made homo-sapiens special Dennett notes that any sensible theory will need to show why homo-sapiens developed culture but other mammals, as well as fish and birds have not. There must be some threshold that they needed to pass but didn’t; Dennett considers a variety of different possible innovations that could act as a threshold e.g. Bipedality, Social intelligence, Imitation etc. His discussion is curiously vague he considers a variety of different theories and notes that there isn’t enough data to solve the problem.
While Dennett’s sketch is thus far very unspecified it does bare a resemblance to other theories that were sketched in more detail e.g. Deacon’s theory as sketched in his Symbolic Species, and Christiansen and Chater’s theory as written in their “Language as Shaped by the Brain”. Dennett notes that his position is similar to the position held by Christiansen and Chater’s but he argues that they misconstrue the nature of memetics and that they exaggerate the case against genetic evolution (ibid. p.279)
(2) The Winding paths to human language:
In this section he discusses how once we have our proto-language in place it could have developed into full blown language: he considers three routes: (A) It began as a proto-language where short utterances like the Vervet Monkey’s alarm calls which were appropriate to the situation but which lacked productivity and any distinction between imperatives and declaratives (B) Perhaps a gesture language came first used for attention grabbing and emphasis (ibid p. 266) (C) Perhaps an auditory “peacock’s tail” arms race for vocal signals and improvisations. After this he goes on to explicate Hurford’s work on the origins of language he does a good job of describe Hurford’s work ( interestingly when I read Hurford I was critical of him from a partially Dennett point of view https://www.academia.edu/10234285/Hurford_Frogs_Flies_Dennett_and_Fodor https://www.academia.edu/10282722/A_Reply_to_Some_Criticisms_of_my_Hurford_Blog https://www.academia.edu/10351818/Hurford_and_Davidson_Animal_Conceptual_Abilities But Dennett endorses his views.
Dennett’s discussion of the fact that; though we can describe people’s linguistic behaviour interms of rules; this doesn’t mean they represent those rules in the brain (they may be free floating rationales) was important. Though it should be noted Quine and Davidson made similar points before him. To see the importance of considering free-floating rationales and the idea of competence without comprehension in relation to language evolution it is worth having a detour and considering a conjecture of Dan Everett’s in his recent paper ‘Grammar Came Later: Triality of Patterning and the Gradual Evolution of Language’.
According to Everett there is evidence that language of some sort has been around 1 million years. Acheulean tools were not developed 1.76 million years ago. Chomsky and Berwick speculate that long lag between language development may have been a result of the fact that language did not exist at this time. Everett admits that this is a possibility but that it is just as likely that it resulted from ‘saticificing’ we look for good enough not for perfection. (Everett). Homo Erectus immigrated from Africa to Europe around 900,000 years ago, Everett argues plausibly that it strains credulity that such a feat would have been possible without some kind of language. Surely some kind of complex communication would have been necessary in order for boats to be built. Everett’s claim is plausible; it is indeed hard to imagine how a person could learn to build boats to sail across the continent without some kind of linguistic skills. However despite the plausibility of Everett’s claim there is reason to doubt it. Dennett’s uses the slogan “competence without comprehension” throughout his book, he gives examples of creatures who are competent at certain behaviours but do not internally represent reasons for those behaviours. He notes the behaviour of Antelope Stotting where the Antelope’s who can jump high when being chased are much less likely to be attacked by Lions. There is an evolutionary reason we can give for the Antelope’s behaviour as Dennett notes it is almost like the Deer is saying “Don’t bother chasing me I am hard to catch; concentrate on one of my cousins who isn’t able to stot-much easier meal” (Dennett ‘From Bacteria to Bach p. 91). One can also imagine the Lion using similar logic as a reason to guide his behaviour towards the stotting Antelopes. But of course implausibly attributing such complex propositional attitudes to the Antelopes and the Lions is not needed. The logic of natural selection dictated that stotting Antelopes survive better than their non-stotting cousins and Lions who attack stotting Antelopes are less like to feed and hence to survive. There is a reason why the Antelope behaves as it does but the Antelope doesn’t need to represent these reasons. Similar considerations apply to the behaviour of newborn Cuckoo’s kicking the eggs of non-Cuckoo’s out of the nest as soon as she is born. There is a reason for the Cuckoo’s behaviour but the Cuckoo’s doesn’t have to represent those reasons. Similar considerations apply to Australian Termite castles; the Termites build the complex structures without speaking to each other and instructing each other (ibid p. 238)
A defender of Everett’s thesis could argue that the case of building a termite castle is not remotely comparable to building boats to sail to another continent. But this is not necessarily the case. Dennett cites a passage from Rogers and Ehrlich (2008):
“Every boat is copied from another boat…Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages and thus never be copied…one could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying others” (ibid p. 214)
Now this is a striking passage where the sea plays a role of “designer” of the boat. Various different shapes are tried but only the shapes that work are selected. Foresight is not a necessary condition of building complicated ships rather trial and error “decides” what the best design is. People can copy designs that appear to work and modify them in ways that may or may not work. Furthermore the people who built boats that (with the help of the sea or natural selection), obviously wouldn’t have to represent where they want to go. An instinct for discovery would do the job to get them sailing, and luck as well as “design” would play an important a role in whether these people ended up in another continent. Everett could be right that language played role in the Homo-erectus emigrating to Europe but he hasn’t established this position nor ruled out the alternative theories. One of the strengths of Dennett’s book is that he gets us to search for ‘Free-Floating Rationales’ for evolutionary cheap tricks which give creatures the competence to perform a task without the creature necessarily having comprehension of why they are doing what they are doing. Dennett offers us an alternative to Everett’s proposal and thus gives us further theory to test. Everett’s story still has some plausibility to it but considerations of Dennett’s idea of ‘Free-Floating Rationale’s’ show that things are not as clear cut as Everett seems to think.
But while there are strong points to Dennett’s book his discussion of Chomsky was a non-engagement; he didn’t even try to understand where Chomsky was coming from. Dennett has long been a critic of Chomsky’s views on the evolution of language. In his ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ Dennett discussed how he attended a conference on AI and psychology in Tufts in 1978 and was shocked to see Chomsky reject engineering approaches to the faculty of language. Chomsky seemed to be fixated on language being something which could either be described interms of fundamental laws of physics or failing that as something which we could only describe in a similar manner that literary theorists describe human behaviour. Dennett whose life work has involved trying to reverse engineer the mind obviously rejects this dichotomy of Chomsky’s noting that Chomsky is ignoring engineering solutions. I think there is a real degree of truth to this claim. But it is not the case that Chomsky ignores engineering solutions he rather adopts a different philosophy of science than Dennett. Linguist and Chomskian Cedric Boeckx discussed Chomsky’s attitude to science in his (2006) ‘Linguistic Minimalism’. Boeckx correctly noted that that Chomsky’s attitude to biology is different to a lot of main stream biologists. Chomsky as a formalist seeks to abstract from messy details and construct formal models which he thinks can capture certain core competencies. But a lot of evolutionary biologists seek to explore messy detail using functional explanations and reverse engineering. Both methods are scientific and Darwin used similar methods of a lot of evolutionary biologists while Newton’s used the methods preferred by Chomsky. Boeckx cites Freeman Dyson’s paper ‘From Manchester to Athens’ (1982) where he distinguishes between two styles of scientists the unifiers and the diversifiers. These different styles are best exemplified Newton and Darwin. Boeckx notes that looking back over the history of science we see that the greatest successes in science have been made by the unifiers. Boeckx is probably correct on this point but it is no indication that this pattern will continue nor is it true of evolutionary biology where the greatest success have been achieved by the diversifiers. Obviously in the debate between Chomsky and Dennett the unifier is Chomsky and the diversifier is Dennett. The point is that both positions are perfectly respectable positions to take in scientific theorising so Chomsky not adopting the engineering approach that Dennett recommends is not automatically a black mark against Chomsky. A scientific theory is to be judged by its successes in prediction and explanation and in this sense Chomsky’s theory has more than paid its way. Dennett’s conjectures on the evolution of language are just conjectures that may in the future pay their way but as of yet have not done so.
Dennett’s criticisms of Chomsky in both his ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ and his ‘From Bacteria to Bach and Back’ centre on what Dennett perceives to be Chomsky’s uncomfortableness with language being tool created by natural selection:
“The Idea that words have evolved by natural selection was obvious to Darwin, and one would that Noam Chomsky, who pioneered the idea of an innate Language Acquisition Device in the brain, would look with favour on evolutionary accounts of how languages in general, and words in particular, came to have their remarkable features, but he has disparaged evolutionary thinking in linguistics in almost all regards” ( ‘From Bacteria to Bach’ p. 187)
“But Chomsky made the claim suspect in many quarters through his adamant resistance to any attempt to account for the design of the LAD by natural selection!” (ibid p. 277)
If Dennett was making this claim in 1995 he would have some justification as Chomsky’s few remarks on the evolution of language were pretty sceptical of the possibilities of us being able to explain the evolution of language. But since that that date Chomsky has written dozens of articles and co-authored a book explicitly designed to demonstrate how language evolved. So Dennett’s remark is simply incorrect and has little to justify it. Chomsky and Berwick in their recent book on the evolution of language ‘Why Only Us’ do argue that merge that was selected for its use in thinking. They call this the faculty of language narrow. But they also discuss the faculty of language broad which consists of the sensory motor system and the conceptual intentional system. Both the sensory motor system and the conceptual intentional system are according to Chomsky adaptations built up by tinkering processes of natural selection. So it is unfair to say that Chomsky is adverse to explanations interms of adaptations he uses them when he thinks they are appropriate. Furthermore Chomsky presents evidence as to why he thinks merge was a mutation by citing archaeological evidence that indicates a great leap forward about 60,000 years ago which indicates a sudden leap in intelligence. Now many theorists such as Everett, Tomasello, and McNeill have critiqued this but they addressed Chomsky’s actual argument and evidence. Dennett doesn’t do this instead resorting to a weak just-so story:
“What’s more, we could plausibly conjecture that Merge itself was no fortuitous giant step, no saltation in design, but a gradual development out of more concrete versions of Merge that can be seen in the manipulations of children (and adults) today: put block on block; use your big hammer stone to make a smaller hammer stone; put berry pile in bigger pile, put bigger pile in still bigger pile; put pie in cup in bowl in bag, and so forth. But are any of these processes real recursion? That is a misguided question, like the question: are the hominins real Homo sapiens? We know that gradual transitions are the rule in evolution, and a gradual emergence of (something like) real recursion-real enough for natural language would be a fine stepping stone, if we could identify it ( ibid pp. 279-280)
And then offering rhetoric:
“And notice that if something like Merge eventually proves to be a hard-wired operation in human brains, as Chomsky proposes, it wouldn’t then be a skyhook. That is, it wouldn’t be the result of a chance mutation that, by cosmic accident, happened to give our ancestors an amazing new talent. The idea that a random mutation can transform a species in one fell swoop is not a remotely credible just so story; it has more in common with comic book fantasies like the Incredible Hulk and all the other action heroes whose encounters with accidents grant them superpowers” (ibid p. 280)
Dennett is here engaging in nothing more than rhetoric and ignoring Chomsky’s actual arguments.
A further problem with Dennett is that while he is dismissing Chomsky’s views on the evolution of language (with little evidence) he sits on the fence on whether Chomsky’s proposed theory on the nature of language is correct:
“I am not taking sides in the controversies, even where I have convictions; I have more than enough to defend without defending how much bias, how much “Universal Grammar,” as the Chomskyans say, must be genetically installed in the “Language Acquisition Device” nor do I stipulate in any way what form this biasing must or might take. One way or another, without deliberate (let alone conscious) theory construction of any kind, the infant homes in on habits that it will share with its parents, responding sensitively to semantic information present to its senses.” (ibid p. 194 )
Dennett’s approach here is simply wrong; one cannot abstract from which theory of the nature of language is true when you are sketching a theory of how language evolved. Noam Chomsky has long argued that any theory of the evolution of language will need to be informed about what language actually is. It is pointless in speculating about how language evolved without understanding the nature of language itself. Chomsky is surely right about this. Any theorist goes into a discussion of the evolution of language with a theory about what the nature of language is. A false theory about the nature of language may send one down a wrong path trying to discover how it evolved. Thus if you think that a key feature of language is that it is an internal computational procedure used for thinking primarily, or if you think that language is primarily a shared system symbols used to communicate meanings; these different theories about the nature and function will have serious effects on how you will understand what the archaeology is telling you about the nature of language. Thus if we consider some facts about the evolution of our ancestors we will see how these facts will appear depending on the theory of language one accepts. In his (2016) ‘Grammar Came Later’ Dan Everett notes some key facts about our evolutionary history. Over 6 million years ago a new type of ape arrived on earth, this bipedal ape was called Australopithecus. According to Everett (2016) Australopithecus could recognise iconicity. To support the claim that they recognise iconicity Everett points out that they collected pebbles, he cites the example Makpansgat Manuport pebble 3million years old which was an icon shaped like a face collected by Australopithecus. Everett goes on to note that up to 2.7 million years ago we have evidence of an icon shaped like an phallus called the Erfoud Manuport. Aside from our use of icons Homo Erectus was using crude Oldowan tools at 2.6 million years ago (Everett 2016).
Now obviously for someone like Everett who thinks that the evolution of symbols is the key factor in the evolution of language these facts will be pure gold. Everett following Peirce notes that the movement from index to icon to symbol is one of the key features of our linguistic capacities. So the fact that Australopithecus was using icons 3 million years is clear evidence that our ancestors were starting on a process of developing a language 3 million years ago. Though obviously the use of an icon is not a linguistic practice but it is evidence of cognitive capacities which may have offered an entering wedge into language. However for a Chomskian who defines a language as the ability to use merge; language is an all or nothing capacity. So a Chomskian will be less than impressed with these empirical details and will believe that they are irrelevant to the details of what Chomsky thinks of as the key feature of language: Merge. We can see from the different ways that Everett and Chomsky treat archaeological details that your evolutionary theory of language is deeply connected to the theory you hold about the nature of language. Dennett being vague in his theory of how language evolved be an untended result of his not taking sides on debates on the nature of language.
Overall while Dennett’s discussion of plausible candidates for a naturalistic explanation of language explanation was interesting he left too much detail out. His competence without comprehension thinking tool is useful as a way of reminding linguists to not just assume that complex behaviours Must be evidence of comprehension. However his treatment of Chomsky was much too cursory to be of any real value.
“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)
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.
 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.
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’, Dan Everett discussed and criticised Quine’s Indeterminacy of Translation Argument. 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 (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. 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. 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 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.
 Dark Matter of the Mind will henceforth be referred to as DMM.
 The Indeterminacy of Translation Argument will henceforth be referred to as IDT.
 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’.
 Henceforth the Inscrutability of Reference will be referred to as ISR.
 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.
 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.
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.