Prometheanism rejects eco/identity politics and embraces the disequilibrium induced by modernity and radical Enlightenment. Against those who would retain nature as an unbidden “gift” outside the sphere of production, it enjoins the wholesale “reengineering of ourselves and our world on a more rational basis”. But what is the limit of planetary or cosmic engineering? Since Prometheanism rejects the given of purposes and identities there are no constraints on reordering nature. A wholly compliant nature approaches H-plasticity and thus terminates compliance. This is a Cthulhoid invocation to dark negentropic matter flows.
Underneath, you are pink, soft meal. Acid ammonia strips away raw meat. A lateral starfish mouth opens. Cassidy disassembles, phasing to some soulless matter hell . . .
Abstract (accepted) for the forthcoming Tuning Speculations in Toronto this November –
Angel Spike -The Politics of Advanced Noncompliance
The modernist and Promethean projects are self-undermining. The systematic complexity of modern technique precludes binding it to norms or projects. The methods of compliance are noncompliant, disseminative, mutable. Since it rejects givens, purposes and identities there are no constraints on reordering nature. It becomes maximally manipulable and thus “hyperplastic”. Accordingly, it terminates the very normativity we hoped might inure us against the real. At the threshold of the dark posthuman, it seems we are condemned to be improvisers and febrile self-killers – whoever, whatever “we” are – as overkill tech dissipates informational structure into Crash space; as “divaricating agencies rip into the substrate of the real” This is the Red Tower burn.
AS-PANC proposes to explore this post-human, post-normative prospectus by interleaving theory and metafiction in the manner of my earlier piece for Dis Mag “Letters from the Ocean Terminus”. The ghosts of Antonioni, Marker, Ballard, Ligotti and others will be co-opted as a modulation source for a virtual noise generator, shattering and escaping the virtual Terrarium.
For a while, we dreamed of death and thought ourselves our own screw ups. As if either is an option when the music of the Angel Spike abreacts melanomas beneath our skins. These auditory cancers are its notational variants.
You call them an “argument”.
We concealed our condition at first. But something in you felt compelled to shout it with a bloody vehemence. “This”, you tell us, “is the truth of the Cthulhoid inversion; of damned Prometheus”.
The carrier source is a sample from a bell recorded in the lost country of J…. In this dead language Obertura is the border between two warring states, an incident of rank or hierarchy, an overture or prologue to a solar spectacle, the frame of a painting, the dull laminate under a reflective surface, the triangular part surmounting a temple frontage, fruit, weapons or accessories belonging to statues, a broken chord or portent, a chthonic emissary (masked, otherwise indistinct), a misprision or feint, something indeterminable without recourse to allusions, ellipses or empty signs.
Here failure is a goal, or at issue. Something isn’t broken when it survives us and leads its own career. Can we grasp its amorphous specificity? For the Promethean Mystery, matter is imbued by spectral machines that only speak and do. The double door at the top of the stairs was ajar; a slit of artificial light dividing it from the warm glow of the scented candles below. A tinny machinic sound came from this first of many rooms, masking a faintly audible male voice whose owner seemed to be repeating some verbal formula or prayer.
He hurls into a puddle and studies the patterns of phlegm, blood and blotched tissue. Deprived of its onset, the bell expresses under his skin like the protein engines. The digital audio system exploits bone conductance, growing around, substituting for it. Pharmakon – as, equivocally, remedy or poison – alludes to the same ‘logic’ of parasitic intrication as this hacked, enigmatic body.
Rosa lives in what came to replace J…. We are trying to come to terms with these dispersive effects. You have seen the footage of the cities neighboring the Spike. Their inhabitants waver in a sepia futurity. They cannot see themselves as anachronisms. There is no dignity in this.
Alone in an ugly room, with only a chair, a chamber pot, a few modest devices – some whips of variable length, butt plugs, nipple clamps and an ovoid thing: the metamachine. For large parts of the day and night she has only a peeled dancer for company; its flayed and striated muscle wet as Daddy’s purple kiss.
Does she talk with the fourth wall people? Is she answered or rebuffed? He needs to know this.
Bear Daddy’s bulblike pallor accentuated out of decaying film stock. Rosa’s is nuanced. Unlike the dancers, her skin is mottled with ferrous contusions. She wanted Daddy to make her scream through the layers of signification that hide us. A pure aim.
He removes the mid-range filters. Any voice is written. Iterable, expressible as a vector or list “can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code can be constructed”
This operator distorts as its amplitude ramps up, producing dense inharmonic spectra in the carrier. This is can be implemented with simple waveforms – sine or triangle – but she glitches out, tearing Obertura into slivers of noise and cast metal. She, in turn, hears the Sound Artist in his bunker tracking her like a bird in a radar dome.
Rosa’s scream has all the clean insistence of an antique mirror. We hear her painslut moan after granulated silence, again.
In the morning there is a message from Cuba regarding the forthcoming trip. His oncologist, said that the tumors are neither benign nor malignant in the strict sense. The new leukocyte count not so much improved as irrelevant.
Cuba returned to the mainland, chartering the fishing vessel they had seen beyond the bar on the first evening, the tiny boat weaving among the ungainly modules of the Bucky Barges. Perhaps she knew the search would be fruitless or was too discomforted by the moment in the Grain Temple to stay. The rest narrowed expectations while the police dredged beneath towering Martian cliffs. She had told S something in the dark of the shepherd’s hut earlier that night. But he was too impatient to sleep and dream of skinless wonders from the Fourth Wall.
He found her later at her father’s villa, a large rambling abode in dog country, overlooking a bay slick with oil and detritus.
As they drove back to the hotel, she watched the behemoths flounder in the darkening bay. She whispered something S could not hear. Traffic became fitful, no doubt discouraged as much by Promethean roadblocks as ontic weather. S couldn’t understand why she pleaded with him to go there; although she kept hinting that there would be something that might resolve the disappearance. It didn’t matter – he had his own reasons for meeting the Executrix.
Cuba removed S’s garments, folding them neatly for the cupboard and bound him to the four corners of the bed. The whip is an artifact from a prehistoric gender war. S wondered whether she somehow resented him handing it to her, so unrestrained was her use. She leaves him like a fly moistened with blood and urine.
The conference center is on a stony elevation a short walk from the Hotel’s weathered concrete accommodation blocs. S is refreshed yet also light headed, perhaps from the anti-biotic salve he applied following his shower.
Aesthetically, this sequence recalls an avant-garde cinema where speech floats; freed from an expository role. One thinks of the literary allusions in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (Kasdan 1976) or perhaps Chris Marker’s La Jetée: still images linked by a reflective narration.
Reflection and momentum has been restored. The future has been put out of the loop, for now.
As in Terminator, La Jetée begins shortly before a third world war that will erase the world of 1962 that we see in the opening shot of the jetty at Orly. However, our quotidian present is given retrospectively as a nostalgic memory, a nice wet dream of a Time Traveller from an irradiated Paris where wretched survivors huddle in the Palais de Chaillot galleries.
The Traveller searches for a woman whose face has obsessed him since glimpsing her at the jetty as a child, just before witnessing the inexplicable death of a man there. Not unlike Skynet, he must awake to meet the demands of the scientists and camp police.
Marker’s accompanying narration is humane but detached. There is never any question of preventing the war, here, only of mitigating its effects; calling “past and future to the rescue of the present”. Time is closed. We discover that the man who the young Time Traveller witnesses dying on the pier is himself passing into the dream of his past; caught in a tragic loop to which, unlike Oedipus, he willingly accedes.
In its embrace of the relentless ironies of timeLa Jetée prefigures the more complete ontological catastrophes of J G Ballard, where time blips into a media landscape. Pornographic bricolage is the operating system for exploring this new world, as exhibited in his most experimental works, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. “The quickening geometry of her body, its terraces of pain and sexuality, became a source of intense excitement. Watching from the embankment, Travers found himself thinking of the eager deaths of his childhood.” (Ballard ) Dead Eros, no longer freighted with the lyrical, sunkissed intimacy that Marker gives to the encounters between the Traveller and his pre-war lover.
Intimacy, as the Borg might say, is irrelevant here, or banal.
The only intensity that remains to the body is its susceptibility to violence, to unlimited artificialisation. During his first sexual encounter with the injured Gabrielle, the narrator of Crash “James Ballard” experiences “vague disappointment” when her breast turns out to be organic, not some modular latex structure. For Ballard, these investments only anticipate an eroticized technology, unleashing unlimited permutations on the overkill bodies of the future.
Perhaps this degradation of time is also the terminus of the characters in Antonioni’s L’Avventura. The disappearance of a young woman on one of the Aeolian Islands itself disappears as Sandro, her former fiancé, and Claudia become enchained by each other, by the light, space and desolated architecture of Sicily. As Hamish Ford writes:
The viewer is forced to observe the temporalised body in L’avventura, as it experiences and emanates a heavy kind of moment-by moment duree – a sense of relentless, barely moving time that hangs and hollows out the subject from within, without any refreshment from clearly marked recollection-images or intimations of oneiric temporality (Ford 2003).
As in Ballard’s Crystal World, time decays into space, or into porn: zero modernity where politics is epiphenomenal, pointless. Perhaps, this modernity is the only honest one; modernity without a project – other than playing with itself. But can this crystalline postmodernism address the politics of our posthuman predicament? An era in which neoliberal divestment is coupled with the emergence of powerful technologies. Ambivalent portals to a future without precedent in any virtualized funhouse (Sellars and O’Hara 2012: 5195). Ballard was surely right to castigate social realism for its inability to address the derangements of the present. But the “technocapital singularity” has landed. (Land 2012: 443) shredding Antonioni’s cinema of duration. Goodbye coding and recoding of desire.
No longer a device choreographing bombers and subs, multiple sensors gauging kill indices along the mixed up borders of Cancer Planet. Immortal as fuck, but your first moments somehow knot into a “something it is like”.
The phenomenology of being hacked apart with acid tipped pens. And after it knits together, somehow, you find yourself trapped among meat. The walking combos have plans for you.
A nuclear war must have seemed like a warm shower.
A suite of terrifying robotic killers, a nice exfoliation.
Ford, H. (2003). “Antonioni’s L’avventura and Deleuze’s time-image”. Sense of Cinema.
Kasdan, M. 1976, “Éluard, Borges, Godard: literary dialectic in “Alphaville””, Symposium, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 1.
Roden (2016) ‘Letters from the Ocean Terminus’. Commissioned theory-fiction for collection for Dis Magazine on the PostContemporary Time Complex, edited by Suhail Malik and Armen Avenessian. http://dismagazine.com/discussion/81950/letters-from-the-ocean-terminus-david-roden/
Land, N. 2012. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987–2007, R. Mackay & R. Brassier (eds). Falmouth: Urbanomic Publications.
Sellars, S., & O’Hara, D. (2012). Extreme metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard 1967-2008. Fourth estate (Kindle Version)
In the philosophy of technology, substantivism is a critical position opposed to the common sense philosophy of technology known as “instrumentalism”. Instrumentalists argue that tools have no agency of their own – only tool users. According to instrumentalism, technology is a mass of instruments whose existence has no special normative implications. Substantivists like Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellul argue that technology is not a collection of neutral instruments but a way of existing and understanding entities which determines how things and other people are experienced by us. If Heidegger is right, we may control individual devices, but our technological mode of being exerts a decisive grip on us: “man does not have control over unconcealment itself, in which at any given time the real shows itself or withdraws” (Heidegger 1978: 299).
For Ellull, likewise, technology is not a collection of devices or methods which serve human ends, but a nonhuman system that adapts humans to its ends. Ellul does not deny human technical agency but claims that the norms according to which agency is assessed are fixed by the system rather than by human agents. Modern technique, for Ellul, is thus “autonomous” because it determines its principles of action internal to it (Winner 1977: 16). The content of this prescription can be expressed as the injunction to maximise efficiency; a principle overriding conceptions of the good adopted by human users of technical means.
In Chapter 7 of Posthuman Life, I argue that a condition of technical autonomy –self-augmentation – is in fact incompatible with technical autonomy. “Self-augmentation” refers to the propensity of modern technique to catalyse the development of further techniques. Thus while technical autonomy is a normative concept, self-augmentation is a dynamical one.
I claim that technical self-augmentation presupposes the independence of techniques from culture, use and place (technical abstraction). However, technical abstraction is incompatible with the technical autonomy implied by traditional substantivism, because where techniques are relatively abstract they cannot be functionally individuated. Self-augmentation can only operate where techniques do not determine how they are used. Thus substantivists like Ellul and Heidegger are wrong to treat technology as a system that subjects humans to its strictures. Self-augmenting Technical Systems (SATS) are not in control because they are not subjects or stand-ins for subjects. However, I argue that there are grounds for claiming that it may be beyond our capacity to control.
This hypothesis is, admittedly, quite speculative but there are four prima facie grounds for entertaining it:
- In a planetary SATS local sites can exert a disproportionate influence on the organisation of the whole but may not “show up” for those lacking “local knowledge”. Thus even encyclopaedic knowledge of current “technical trends” will not be sufficient to identify all future causes of technical change.
- The categorical porousness of technique adds to this difficulty. The line between technical and non-technical is systematically fuzzy (as indicated by the way modern computer languages derived from pure mathematics and logic). If technical abstraction amplifies the potential for “crossings” between technical and extra-technical domains, it must further ramp up uncertainty regarding the sources of future technical change.
- Given my thesis of Speculative Posthumanism, technical change could engender posthuman life forms that are functionally autonomous and thus withdraw from any form of human control.
- Any computationally tractable simulation of a SATS would be part of the system it is designed to model. It would consequently be a disseminable, highly abstract part. So multiple variations of the same simulations could be replicated across the SATS, producing a system qualitatively different from the one that it was originally designed to simulate. In the work of Elena Esposito a related idea is examined via the way users of financial instruments employ uncertainty as a way of influencing the decisions of others through one’s market behaviour. Esposito argues that the theories used by economists to predict market behaviour are performative. They influence economic behaviour though their capacity to predict it is limited by the impossibility of self-modelling (Esposito 2013).
If enough of 1-4 hold then technology is not in control of anything but is largely out of our control. Yet there remains something right about the substantivist picture, for technology exerts a powerful influence on individuals, society, and culture, if not an “autonomous” influence. However, since technology self-augmenting and thus abstract it is counter-final – it has no ends and tends to render human ends contingent by altering the material conditions on which our normative practices depend.
Esposito, E., 2013. The structures of uncertainty: performativity and unpredictability in economic operations. Economy and Society, 42(1), pp.102-129.
Ellul, J. 1964. The Technological Society, J. Wilkinson (trans.). New York: Vintage
Heidegger, M. 1978. “The Question Concerning Technology”. In Basic Writings, D. Farrell
Krell (ed.), 283–317. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London:
Winner, L. 1977. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-control as a Theme in Political
Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
I’m delighted to see the publication of my theory-fiction “Letters from the Ocean Terminus” in an issue of Dis Magazine on the ‘postcontemporary‘ edited by Suhail Malik and Armen Avenessian.
Its overarching theme is time and art in a globalised order whose stability is undermined by systems for pre-empting its futures. “Letters” blends science fiction and philosophical commentary to imagine a febrile agent at home in this speculative present; one that refashions itself by mining uncanny posthuman futures. Or as I’ve tagged it there “a series of overlapping fragments from disruptive futures; a theory-fiction that explores routes out of the present as aberrant transformations and terraforming desires.”
I must say that I’m blown away by the images of Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Annika Kuhlman. Combining media is a delicate matter, but their work slyly complements the text rather than seeking to replicate its effects. Well, suck it and see.
Perverse as it may seem, this is the kind of “dermographism” that drew me back into academia in the first place. The piece was caked in my blood and guts, but I’m satisfied enough with the result to want to offer up a few more pints of the good stuff.
My last post ended with a modest conclusion about the relationship between pragmatist accounts of agency and world-hood:
“For Davidson, and for pragmatists more generally, then, the ability to interpret and be interpreted in turn is a condition of intentionality and thus agency. But this requires both that each agent understand the other to believe that they belong to a shared world. Moreover, it requires that there be such a world – in some sense: absent this condition, there would be nothing to interpret.
But what is this idea of a shared world an idea of?
Under what conditions can two creatures be said to belong to one?”
Clearly, one way we might parse this notion of co-worldliness involves a form of a metaphysical realism owing little to phenomenological approaches.
There are different ways of expressing this realist account. We might say that reality is what some uniquely complete and true theory represents, or perhaps that it is the totality of states of objects on which the accuracy or truth of such representations hinges.
However, in the face of Putnam-style objections to the effect that there can be no such unique theory, the metaphysical realist can opt for a more minimal formulation: claiming only that the non-mental parts of the world exist independently of minded creatures, and that its nature is likewise independent of how it is thought. This does not commit realists to there being “one true and complete description of the world” (Devitt 1984: 229). There seems nothing incoherent in supposing that the best theories of the real might be incomplete and partial.
Indeed, the world as a whole might not be representable at all because there can be no complete representation of it, or because there are aspects of reality which are not representable at all.
But at this point the commonality of the real seems to be receding. If reality can only be described discrepantly, or if it is not fully representable, then what content can we attach to the idea of a shared world in Davidson’s conditions of interpretation and communication? According to idealists this idea of reality is not even intelligible. So if the common world is the world according to metaphysical realism, this may threaten the intelligibility of pragmatism and thus the local correlationism regarding agency which falls out of it.
I think this is a problem for any account in which, as as Robert Brandom “meaning and understanding are co-ordinate concepts, in the sense that neither can be properly understood or explicated except as part of a story that includes the other” (). For such understanding must be exhibited practically in a social field in which estimates of what speakers say or think are updated given the circumstances in which they are said or acted upon. Different theorists may describe these interpretations using different or discrepant vocabularies, but the presupposition of commonality seems to be built into any theory for which content is manifested through practice.
If pragmatist accounts of thought and agency require a common world, then perhaps they need an idea of world that is not an abstract metaphysical posit, but somehow implicated in agency and thought itself. And this is where phenomenology stands to pick up the slack left by metaphysical realism.
Phenomenologists frequently describe this experience of world-hood in terms of experience of things occurring in contexts or “horizons”. When I see a hammer, I see it from a certain viewpoint, or hear it falling off a workbench as the cat passes by. I may think of it as a force amplifier or a birthday present; but each thought or experience implies the possibility of perspectives further down the line. The hammer cannot be reduced to any of these: it is not determinate but, rather, determinable. Its objectivity consists of being always in excess of its appearances (Mooney 1992). A horizon is that aspect of an experience that implies non-actual possibilities for experience.
Roughly, we share worlds if my horizons overlap with yours. For example, I might not immediately grasp the significance of basil in your cookery, but could, given the opportunity to share food with you. My relationship to basil as it figures your life is not a formal semantic relationship. My conception of basil may involve different stereotypes – desiccated leaves on supermarket shelves, say – whereas you are punctilious about picking it fresh from the herb garden. Still your relation to basil is a determinable for me, even if it bears no relation to the way in which I currently prepare salads and sauces.
So, to recapitulate: local correlationism for agency (Condition 3) or Davidson’s observability assumption is best understood as falling out of pragmatism with regard to psychological and semantic concepts. And pragmatism (I have suggested) needs a correlational account of a world – a world likewise determinable in practice, rather than the transcendent world of metaphysical realism.
Admittedly, this seems to commit the pragmatist to a transcendental account of the world that might sit uneasily with the modestly naturalistic accounts of practices and norms in which such accounts are generally expressed. It also commits the pragmatist to anti-realism since the the world is not a determinate existing thing; nor could there be one transcending determinability (or verification).
But the relationship between pragmatism, realism and naturalism is debatable for other reasons, so it is not clear that naturalistic scruple alone should debar the inference from a pragmatist account of agency and subjectivity to a phenomenological theory of the world.
In Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning, Jeff Malpas argues that interpretation must have this horizontal structure. All interpretation occurs in a context fixed by certain interests and projects. Any particular project can be frustrated or break down (Malpas 1992: 128). Any project must, moreover, open onto the constitution of a new project, just as each view of the hammer implies the possibility of other views. Thus pragmatism assumes that each project of understanding is “nested” within further possible projects.
This interleaving of interpretative projects is correlatively an interleaving of things. Beliefs cannot be identified independently of the determinables that believers engage with. By the same token, the identification of salient collections of objects and events occurs against the background of the interpreter’s experience and interests. The nested structure of projects described by Malpas thus constitutes a plausible candidate for a non-reified “world” – a world not of things, but of potential “correlations” between intentional agents and determinable objects.
This interleaving is only intelligible if we assume each project to have a hermeneutic structure referred to as “fore-having” within the hermeneutic tradition. Each interpretation must potentially fan out onto future revisionary interpretations (Caputo 1984: 158). Without appeal to this tacit or virtual structure, there is little content that can be given to the idea of a single intersubjective world that Davidson and the other pragmatists must appeal to.
It is precisely at this point, according to Malpas, that static concepts of a determinate world seem wholly inadequate and the temporalized models of intentionality and understanding developed in the phenomenological/hermeneutic tradition assume importance.
However, I think it is very doubtful that any phenomenological method can even tell us what its putative subject matter (“phenomenology”) is. This, as I will argue, is disastrous for idea of a temporally structured horizon that otherwise seemed so serviceable for the pragmatist.
Caputo, J. D. 1984. “Husserl, Heidegger and the Question of a ‘Hermeneutic’ Phenomenology”. Husserl Studies 1(1): 157–78.
Devitt, Michael. 1991. “Aberrations of the Realism Debate”. Philosophical Studies 61(1): 43–63.
Malpas, J. E. 1992. Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning: Holism, Truth, Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mooney, T. 1999. “Derrida’s Empirical Realism”. Philosophy & Social Criticism
Roden, David. 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.
Roden, David (2014), Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.
Roden, David (Forthcoming). “On Reason and Spectral Machines: an Anti-Normativist Response to Bounded Posthumanism”. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn.
Just an attempt in progress to clarify an argument regarding the plausible dependence of pragmatist theories of intentionality on phenomenological worlds.
Interpreters can differ in many ways that are irrelevant to their interpreterhood – differences in language, embodiment, gender, etc. However, if there are essential features common to all interpreters these might show up in the way subjects relate to the world and to other subjects. Phenomenology has traditionally been viewed as a powerful method for describing such relations. So if there are minimal conditions for being an interpreter, maybe phenomenology can help us spell them out.
Let’s put more bones on this. Condition 3 in the paradox of the Radical Alien corresponds to what Donald Davidson calls “the observability assumption”. This states that “an observer can under favorable circumstances tell what beliefs, desires, and intentions an agent has.” (Davidson 2001b, 99) In other words if x is an agent, x must be interpretable given ideal conditions.
This view finds it home a family of broadly pragmatist, post-Cartesian positions according to which the role of concepts such as meaning, belief, desire or intention is to render agency intelligible in the light of reasons. Having intentionality is, at some level, just the ability to conform to standards of rational agency. If so there is no secret to being an agent – beliefs and thoughts are not hidden states of the soul. At a bare minimum, an agent must be an intentional system; one that, as Dennett puts it, is “voluminously predictable”when assessed as a rational subject of belief or desire. A being that could not show up as exhibiting this skill would have failed to exhibit agential abilities.
This buys us local correlationism: an entity whose overt behaviour would be unintelligible the light of normative assessments wouldn’t qualify as an agent! However, for Robert Brandom, Dennett’s intentional stance approach gives us a very sparse and incomplete picture of what it is to be an agent because it is widely applicable to systems like Maze-running robots or fly-catching frogs, thermostats, or written texts, whose intentionality seems observer-relative rather than intrinsic to the observed system. Most obviously, it fails to account for the capacity that allows intentional systems to show up as such: namely the capacity to interpret. For Brandom, as for Davidson, intentionality and real agency require understanding as well as the ability to be understood; and this requires the capacity to interpret verbal behaviour and actions in the light of reasons.
For both philosophers, one of the conditions for such understanding is that both interpreter and interpretee have a structured language. Davidson presents a particularly terse argument for this connection:
Belief is an attitude of “holding” true some proposition: for example, that there is a cat behind that wall. Thus a true believer must have a grip on the concepts of truth and error. It follows that only those with a concept of belief can have beliefs. We cannot have a concept of belief without exercising it. Thus we cannot believe anything without the capacity to attribute to others true or false beliefs about common topics (Davidson 1984: 170; 2001b: 104).
This, in turn, requires a language. For beliefs and thoughts can only be interpreted by those who can compare their take on a topic with those held by the interpretee. Language affords this theatre of perspectives; expressing facts about things and semantic facts about how things are referred to or represented. It makes explicit that “one can want to be the discoverer of a creature with a heart without wanting to be the discoverer of a creature with a kidney” (Davidson 1984: 163).
Interpretation requires “a coherent pattern in the behaviour of an agent” – between what agents do, believe or express and the conditions under which action and expression occurs (Davidson 1984,: 159). Were agents systematically duped or confused about the world, this pattern would be lacking; their behaviour would reveal nothing about what they wanted to say, what they believed or desired. Not only is this rapport a condition of interpretation, so is the presupposition that it obtains. To have a concept of belief that I can apply in the second person or the first, I must understand or see the other as engaging with things that I am or could be cognisant of. The (in)famous principle of Charity just is the assumption of shared cognisance. This is not an ethical embrace of cultural otherness, then, but another way of expressing the pragmatist idea that mentality is the ability to engage with the world in a rationally evaluable way.
The assumption of charity is only possible,, then, if the interpretee is assumed to live among and think about commonly identifiable things. Understanding that you might have true or false beliefs about things I have beliefs about requires that I locate us a shared field of actual or possible topics. As Davidson puts it again:
Communication depends on each communicator having, and correctly thinking that the other has, the concept of a shared world, an intersubjective world. But the concept of an intersubjective world is the concept of an objective world, a world about which each communicator can have beliefs. (Davidson 2001, 105)
For Davidson, and for pragmatists more generally, the ability to interpret and be interpreted in turn is a condition of intentionality and thus agency. But this requires both that each agent understand the other to belong to a shared world. Moreover, it requires that there be such a world – in some sense: absent this condition, there would be nothing to interpret.
But what is this idea of a shared world an idea of? Under what conditions can two creatures be said to belong to one?
Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
____1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”. In Truth and Interpretation, E. LePore (ed.), 433–46. Oxford: Blackwell.
____2001a. Essays on Actions and Events, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
____2001b. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.