Wilfred Sellars (1974) argues that we should not construe claims about meanings as expressing a semantic relation between a verbal entity (a word, sentence, etc.) and a language-independent entity (abstract or concrete) but as claims about the functional roles of linguistic tokens. Thus we should construe

“chat” (in French) means cat


*chat*’s (in French) are  •cat•’s

“La neige est blanche” (in French) means Snow is white


*La neige est blanche*’s (in French) are  •Snow is white•’s

Where the expression “*chat*’s” is a metalinguistic distributive term that refers to all non-semantically individuated tokens with a certain shape or sound and the dot quotation expression “•cat•’s” uses the English token “cat” to exemplify its functional role in English. This expression says, in effect, that characters and letters of a certain shape in French have the same functional role as “cat” in English.

This device allows Sellars to construct a conception of meaning which is not committed to extra-linguistic abstract entities such as propositions. The meaning of s is not constituted by its relation to some abstract entity p but by its functional role in a given linguistic community (its role within its economy of language-entry, transition and exit rules). This is obviously an attractive notional device for nominalists who wish to rein in metaphysical commitments to non-linguistic abstracta. It reframes metaphysical issues about the existence of propositions or attributes as questions about the status of functional roles. Of course, functional roles are not metaphysically innocent or unproblematic. We can ask of the Sellarsian whether normative facts supervene on non-normative ones and what the consequences of this relationship are. If we can do no better than supervenience to describe their relationship, this will be a problematic outcome for many naturalists. A second question – not unrelated to the first – is that of how functional-inferential roles are individuated. Presumably, they cannot be individuated semantically if Sellars’ account of meaning is to be non-question-begging.

In this post I want to consider a puzzle that is related to the second problem. I have discussed an analogous issue with regard to Davidson’s interpretation-based semantics in “Radical Quotation and Real Repetition” (Roden 2004). I’m not confident about the metaphysical solution I proposed in that paper, but if something like it can begin to address the issue for Sellars account of functional classification this might help us think through the ontological underpinnings of interpretation.

The problem anatomized in “Radical Quotation” arose with regard to Davidsonian truth theories.

As Olaf Gjelsvik (1994) points out, the formal model used by Davidson presupposes that we can pick out bits of the language we want to interpret syntactically. Davidson’s account requires that radical interpreters have a stock of primitive terms referring to constituent expressions of the object language and that these can be assembled into ‘structural descriptions’ reflecting the syntactic composition of its sentences (Davidson 1984, p. 133). For example, an axiom in a truth theory for a language might say of a certain concatenation of three symbols that it is satisfied by a sequence of objects if the first member of the sequence is larger than the second member (i.e. giving it the extension of the predicate “….larger than….”.)

Why might this be a problem for Davidson? Well, it is a problem if we recall that Davidson’s use of model theory is designed to explicate an informal semantic notion: meaning. He proposes to do this by way of a notion he takes to be better understood: truth. Sellars’ approach (as I understand it) is procedural rather than model-theoretic. But it one might expect that it needs to meet analogous constraints (even if not the same ones).

So here’s where Gjelsvik thinks that Davidson’s account hits a bump.

If languages are individuated by the syntactic types composing their expressions – roughly, by the physical shape and structure of grammatical strings – the semantic properties of their sentences must be non-essential. It is thus possible for a sentence to have different semantic properties in different speech communities. But then a truth theory for one community can be made false if another uses tokens of these types differently. For example, on Twin Earth a language, Twinglish, might be spoken in which English-shaped predicates have contrary ‘meanings’.

The existence of Twinglish would be enough to falsify the T sentence:

‘Snow is white’ is True(E) if and only if Snow is white

Since it is the syntactic string referred to by ‘Snow in white’ which relativises a truth predicate, not the abbreviations “E” and “Tw”, there is nothing to distinguish it from a statement about a sentence of Twinglish:

‘Snow if white’ is True(Tw) if and only if Snow is white

If ‘. . . is white’ in Twinglish were a contrary of its English counterpart (meaning is green, say) the ‘only if’ would make it false.

According to Gjelsvik, the only alternative is to specify English sentences semantically. A formal theory of the Tarksian kind achieves this by defining a predicate that holds of all and only the true sentences of a language. But its theorems flow by stipulation and logical necessity. Davidsonian theories are supposed to express contingent, empirical claims about semantically uncharacterised sentences. Thus, Gjelsvik argues, a competent radical interpreter must assume that the world’s distribution of semantic properties is not of the Twinglish/English sort (Gjelsvik 1994, p. 34). The problem, here, is that this assumption utilizes pretheoretic concepts of subsentential meaning (using semantic concepts like “satisfaction” in the formalism of semantic theories is OK, according to Davidson, because they are part of the logical machinery of the theories. They are not explicatory as such)

It seems that a similar problem afflicts the metalinguistic statements that occur in Sellarsian functional role ascriptions.

*chat*’s (in French) are  •cat•’s

Would be false if Twin French speakers used *chat*’s differently to •cat•’s . Indeed it would be false if anyone, anywhere used *chat*’s in a way that ended up giving it a contrary functional role . Thus there must be other assumptions built into the ascription of metalinguistic types that are not evident in this formalism.

Well, it might seem that the Sellarsian is in a more favorable position than the Davidsonian here. For Gjelsvik, Davidson cannot constrain the scope of truth based theories without introducing meaning by the back door. But the Sellarsian only has to to claim that the distribution of functional roles is not of the silly type that would have *chat*’s acquiring contrary functional roles all over the place.

The problem with this fix is that there is absolutely nothing silly about contrary functional roles. As Robert Brandom’s inferentialist account implies, a term can acquire different functional roles where people have contrary beliefs. We would expect dancing inferential roles to be par for the course within any speech community. In any event, Sellars cannot preclude rampant homonymy without making their functional roles essential to interpretants in metalinguistic sortal sentences. But this would also render them trivial.

In consequence  many metalinguistic sortal claims are falsified by inferential nuances within and between language communities, while it would be perfectly conceivable that there are no true ML sortals at all (allowing for sufficient homonymic variability across speech communities).

It is not clear to me where this would leave Sellars’ metaphysics of meaning. For example, can we build in a tacit reference to a given speech community which can be expected to exhibit the uniformities described by metalinguistic sortal claims? Maybe, but as well as being questionable for the Davidsonian/Brandomian reasons mentioned above, it also seems to require an explicit notion of reference. If we cannot plausibly restrict the scope of ML sortals in such a way, however, it would seem to follow that most or many ML sortal claims are false (thus there are no ML functional types, or very few) Thus the claim that the meaning of a term is its functional role would have to be judged false as well.

My solution to the problem that Davidson faces is to treat metalinguistic statements in a constructionist spirit. Syntactical types – accordingly – are not contingent owners of functional roles. They are individuated by functional role. So English “white” and Twinglish “white” are distinct characters and not the same character used in different ways. The problem, then, is to account for the empirical, contingent character of claims like

*chat*’s are  •cat•’s

For on this account *chat* is not part of a “language” (like French) in a conventional sense but of a local idiom constructed purely for purposes of interpretation. For reasons similar to those discussed by Davidson in “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” we are no longer supposing that the notion of a language is the basic one here. The issue, then, is what is the function of an interpretant such as *chat* in this sortal statement?

My solution circa 2004 was to say that its function is to repeat the utterances or parts of utterances used by native speakers of languages under interpretation (we return to the primal scene of radical interpretation, as it were).  *La neige est blanche* is designed to quote expressions in one idiom in another idiom (that of the interpreting discourse). So

*La neige est blanche*’s (in French) are  •Snow is white•’s

refers to a set of historically instantiated utterance events by repeating them. Thus there must be a historical-causal relation of some kind between the interpreter and users of the interpreted idiom which can explain its purchase on these (rather, say, than on users of an orthographically identical language on Twin Earth).

The ontological basis of this quotation is not exemplification of a common semantic type. It is an ontologically primitive relation of repetition or “iteration” (to use Derrideanese) which operates transversely between languages and language communities (non-language-relative repetition). Some events, it must be assumed, just repeat other events without having to fall under a common description. The worry, now, is that the interpreted terms in ML sortings are being used as instances of the items they repeat rather being merely structural descriptions or examples of sign-designs. They are being used, so to speak, to refer to themselves. But if this is right, then the very act of interpreting them constitutes a variation in functional role. It is also a function that cannot obviously be expressed in inferential terms.

Finally, if the interpretants are essentially repeatabilia, then it is part of their job description (so to speak) that that can always accrue functional roles that differ from the ones they have had (otherwise interpretation would have no text). But then it cannot be inappropriate to use them in these “deviant” ways. Thus there no longer seems to be room for the normative facts which (supposedly) undergird the functionalist account.


Davidson, Donald (1984). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

____1986. ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’, in Ernest LePore (ed.) Truth and
Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson (Oxford: Blackwell).

Derrida, Jaqcues. 1988. Limited Inc. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (trans.) (Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press).

Gjelsvik, Olav. 1994. ‘Davidson’s Use of Truth in Accounting for Meaning’, in Language, Mind and Epistemology: on Donald Davidson’s Philosophy, Gerhard Preyer, Frank Siebelt and Alexander Ul?g (eds.) (Dordrecht: Kluwer), pp. 21–43.

Lewis, Kevin. 2013. ”Carnap, Quine and Sellars on Abstract Entities”,  https://www.academia.edu/2364977/Carnap_Quine_and_Sellars_on_Abstract_Entities (Accessed 12-7-14)

Sellars, W. (1974). Meaning as Functional Classification (A Perspective on the Relation of Syntax to Semantics). Synthese, (3/4). 417.


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People and cultures have some non-overlapping beliefs. Some folk believe that there is a God, some that there is no God, some that there are many gods. Some people believe that personal autonomy is a paramount value, while others feel that virtues like honour and courage take precedence over personal freedom. These core beliefs are serious, in that they make a difference to whether people live or die, or are able to live the kinds of life that they wish. People fight and die for the sake of autonomy. People fight, die or (institute gang rapes) in the interests of personal honour.

Some folk – the self-styled pluralists – believe that respect for otherness is a paramount political value. Respecting otherness, they say, is so paramount that it should regulate our ontological commitments – our assumptions about what exists. I must admit that I find this hard to credit ontologically or ethically. But it is also unclear how we should spell the principle out. So I’ll consider two versions that have circulated in the blogosphere recently. The first, I will argue, teeters on incoherence or, where not incoherent, is hard to justify in ethical or political terms. The second – which demands that we build a common world – may also be incoherent, but I will argue that we have no reason to think that its ultimate goal is realisable.

According to Philip at Circling Squares Isabel Stengers and Bruno Latour think that this position should enjoin us to avoid ridiculing or undermining others’ values or ontologies. Further, that we should:

grant that all entities exist and, second, that to say that someone’s cherished idol (or whatever disputed entity they hold dear) is non-existent is a ‘declaration of war’ – ‘this means war,’ as Stengers often says.

I’ll admit that I find first part of this principle this damn puzzling. Even if we assume – for now – that it is wrong to attempt to undermine another person’s central beliefs this principle seems to require a) that people actually embrace ontological commitments that are contrary to the one’s they adhere to; b) pretend not to have one’s core beliefs; c) adopt some position of public neutrality vis a vis all core beliefs.

The first interpretation (a) results in the principle that one should embrace the contrary of every core belief; or, in effect, that no one should believe everything. So (in the interests of charity) we should pass on.

b) allows us to have beliefs so long as they are unexpressed. Depending on your view of beliefs, this is either incoherent (because there are no inexpressible beliefs) or burdens believers that no one is likely to find it acceptable.

So I take Philip to embrace c).  His clarification suggests something along these lines. For example. He claims that it is consistent with respecting otherness to say what we believe about other’s idols but not to publicly undermine their reasons for believing in them. Thus:

Their basic claim seems to be that ‘respect for otherness,’ i.e. political pluralism, can only come from granting the entities that others hold dear an ontology, even if you don’t ‘believe’ in them.  You are thus permitted to say ‘I do not follow that god, he has no hold over me’ but you are not permitted to say ‘your god is an inane, infantile, non-existent fantasy, grow up.’  And it’s not just a question of politeness (although there’s that too).  The point is to grant others’ idols and deities an existence – one needn’t agree over what that existence entails, over what capacities that entity has or what obligations it impresses upon you as someone in its partial presence but to deny it existence entirely is to ‘declare war’ – to deny the possibility of civil discourse, of pluralistic co-existence.

I must admit that I find this principle of respect puzzling as well. After all, some of my reasons for being an atheist are also reasons against being a theist. So unless this is just an innocuous plea for good manners (which I’m happy to sign up to on condition that notional others show me and mine the same forbearance) it seems to require that all believers keep their reasons for their belief to themselves. This, again, seems to demand an impossible or repugnant quietism.

So, thus far, ontological pluralism seems to be either incoherent or to impose such burdens on all believers that nobody should be required to observe it. There is, of course, a philosophical precedent for restricted ontological quietism in Rawls’ political liberalism. Rawls’ proposes that reasonable public deliberation recognize the “burdens of judgement” by omitted any justification that hinges on “comprehensive” ethical or religious doctrines over which there can be reasonable disagreement (Rawls 2005, 54). Deliberations about justice under Political Liberalism are thus constrained to be neutral towards “conflicting worldviews” so long as they are tolerant and reasonable (Habermas 1995, 119, 124-5).

However, there is an important difference between the political motivations behind Rawlsian public reason and the position of “ontological charity” Philip attributes to Stengers and Latour. Rawls’ is motivated by the need to preserve stability within plural democratic societies. Public reason does not apply outside the domain of political discourse in which reasonable citizens hash out basic principles of justice and constitutional essentials. It is also extremely problematic in itself.  Habermas  argues that Rawls exclusion of plural ethical or religious beliefs from the public court is self-vitiating because comprehensive perspectives are sources of disagreement about shared principles (for example, the legitimacy of abortion or same-sex marriage) and these must accordingly be addressed through dialogue rather than circumvented if a politically stable consensus is to be achieved (126).

Finally, apart from being incoherent, the principle of ontological charity seems unnecessary. As Levi Bryant points out in his realist retort to the pluralist, people are not the sum of their beliefs. Beliefs can be revised without effacing the believer. Thus an attack on core beliefs is not an attack on the person holding those beliefs.

So it is hard to interpret the claim that we should grant the existence of others’ “idols” as much more than the principle that it is wrong to humiliate, ridicule or insult people because of what their beliefs are. This seems like a good rule of thumb, but it is hard to justify the claim that it is an overriding principle. For example, even if  Rushdie’s Satanic Verses “insults Islam” having an open society in which aesthetic experimentation and the critical evaluation of ideas is possible is just more important than saving certain sections of it from cognitive dissonance or intellectual discomfort. Too many people have suffered death, terror and agony because others had aberrant and false core beliefs to make it plausible that these should be immune from criticism or ridicule. A little personal dissonance is a small price to pay for not going to the oven.

So what of the principle that we should build a “common world”. This is set out by Jeremy Trombley in his Struggle Forever blog under the rubric of “cosmopolitics”. Jeremy regards this project as an infinite task that requires us to seek a kind of fusion between different word views, phenomenologies and ontologies:

The project, as Latour, Stengers, James, and others have described it, is to compose a common world. What pluralism recognizes is that, in this project, we all start from different places – Latour’s relativity rather than relativism. The goal, then, (and it has to be recognized that this project is always contingent and prone to failure) is to make these different positions converge, but in a way that doesn’t impose one upon the other as the Modern Nature/Culture dichotomy tends to do. Why should we avoid imposing one on the other? In part because it’s the right thing to do – by imposing we remove or reduce the agency of the other. The claim to unmediated access to reality makes us invulnerable – no other claim has that grounding, and therefore we can never be wrong. But we are wrong – the science of the Enlightenment gave us climate change, environmental destruction, imperialism in the name of rationality (indigenous peoples removed from their land and taken to reeducation facilities where they were taught “rational” economic activities such as farming), and so on. It removed us from the world and placed us above it – the God’s eye view.

I think there a number of things wrong with cosmopolitics as Jeremy describes it here.

Firstly, seeking to alter beliefs or values does not necessarily reduce agency because people are not their beliefs.

Secondly, some worldviews – like the racist belief-systems that supported the European slave trade – just need to be imposed upon because they are bound up with violent and corrupting socio-political systems.

Thirdly, I know of no Enlightenment thinker, or realist, for whom “unmediated access to reality” is a sine qua non for knowledge. Let’s assume that “realism” is the contrary of pluralism here. It’s not clear what unmediated access would be like, but all realists are committed to the view that we we don’t have it since if we believe that reality has a mind-independent existence and nature, it can presumably vary independently of our beliefs about it. In its place, we have various doctrines of evidence and argument that are themselves susceptible to revision.  Some analyses of realism suppose that realists are committed to the claim that there is a one true account of the world (the God’s Eye View) but – as pointed out in an earlier post – this commitment is  debatable. In any case, supposing the the existence of a uniquely true theory is very different from claiming to have it.

Finally, much hinges on what we mean by a common world here. I take it that it is not the largely mind-independent reality assumed by the realist since – being largely mind-independent – it exists quite independently of any political project. So I take it that Jeremy is adverting something like a shared phenomenology or experience: a kind of fusion of horizons at the end of time. If we inflect “world” in this sense, then there is no reason for believing that such an aim is possible, let alone coherent. This possibility depends on there being structures of worldhood that are common to all beings that can be said to have one (Daseins, say). I’ve argued that there are no reasons for holding that we have access to such a priori knowledge because – like Scott Bakker - I hold that phenomenology gives us very limited insight into its nature. Thus we have no a priori grasp of what a world is and no reason to believe that Daseins (human or nonhuman) could ever participate in the same one. The argument for this is lengthy so I refer the reader to my paper “Nature’s Dark Domain” and my forthcoming book Posthuman Life.


Habermas, Jurgen. 1995. “Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason: Remarks on John Rawls’s Political Liberalism.” The Journal of Philosophy 92 (3): 109–131.

Rawls, John. 2005. Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press.




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I’m currently using Davidsonian radical interpretation as a model for understanding the obstructions presented by very alien minds and phenomenologies – posthumans, aliens, cats, etc. However, much as I admire Davidson’s writings I don’t really want to be a Davidsonian. For example, I don’t think that content is constituted by how others might interpret it in ideal conditions. Entertaining or having a certain content is at bottom a power or disposition – it’s a state that makes a difference to what one can do, it exercises influence on actions, etc..

Ray Brassier refers to humans animals “with the capacity to be gripped by concepts” (Brassier 2011). I find the implicit analogy between concept use and possession suggestive, though it does not incline me to his view that concepts are inferential roles or articulations. If contents are real powers with “grip” then “uninterpretable content” is an oxymoron – for it would be a causally inert property whose possession makes no difference to the possessor or to anything else (Heil 2003, Ch8).

Such properties need not be identical to inferential roles because inferential roles are manifestations of powers and powers are not identical to their manifestations. Nonetheless, assigning inferential roles ( interpreting) may be a good way of predicting and manipulating the behaviour of the possessed.

If one is a Davidsonian radical interpreter, interpretation can be thought of as using a sentence with a familiar role in some interpreting theory or metalanguage – e.g. “The box is a trap” – and proceeding as if a state of the interpretee (an utterance or mental state) has the content which manifests this role. I suggested this approach in 2004 back when I was more sympathetic to the interpretationist cause. At that point, I was only dimly aware that this was a way of instrumentalizing interpretation and divesting  it of its pretensions to constitutive status (I’m slow this way). Interpretability is just a spinoff of the fact that concepts and contents exert influence and have results we can track and use.

Thus understood, radical interpretation is semantic modelling as extreme sport. We create an artificial idiom that means something for us – the interpreting “theory” – and consider the degree to which another being shares that idiom (Roden 2004, 200-1). Success in interpretation need not depend on mirroring the content of the alien state we wish to understand. For example, the state by virtue of which the raccoon is able to represent the fact that a box is a trap will presumably differ from “The box is a trap” in not being a grammatically structured sentence in a public language but a brain state of some kind. However, if the modelling procedure helps us to shape and cope with cat, raccoon, posthuman behaviour the interpretation can be warranted on purely pragmatic grounds.

In Donald Davidson’s Philosophy of Language, Bjorn Ramberg imagines an idealized hard case involving people who are solely concerned with events that happened two days ago (Ramberg 1989, 120). We might not be able to appreciate what is it like to be entirely preoccupied with two day old events, but this does not mean that we cannot detect this temporal fixation and interpret those who have it. For example, we might have a theory that says of a temporal displacee that s (an utterance in the displacee’s language)  uttered at time t is true if and only if p – where p reports some event two days prior to t. Of course, realizing that use value in the form of fluid communication might require more than just a helpful simulation. It would require the interpreters to become sensitive to the point of view of the displacees. So from radical interpretation we arrive at the threshold of cyborg becomings. But that’s another story.

Brassier, R. (2011). The view from nowhere. Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, (17), 7-23.

Heil, J. (2003). From an ontological point of view. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Ramberg, B. T. (1989). Donald Davidson’s philosophy of language. Blackwell.
Roden, D. (2004). Radical quotation and real repetition. Ratio, 17(2), 191-206.



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Brassier, Sellars and Davidson

On January 30, 2012, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Modern philosophical anthropology can trace its genesis to early Enlightenment attempts to reconcile the naturalistic insight that humans are conditioned by history and nature with their status as ‘self-governing’ subjects. Although this project is associated with a post-Kantian idealist and hermeneutic tradition, the problem of reconciling nature with autonomy has not gone unaddressed in the post-war analytic tradition. Anglo-American writers like Sellars, Davidson, Dennett, McDowell and Brandom have made subtle attempts to account for the distinctiveness of human culture and agency while accommodating graded Darwinian commitments to explaining its emergence from pre-linguistic forms of representation or action.

Ray Brassier’s recent talk on Wilfrid Sellars’ account of language games ‘How to Train an Animal that Makes Inferences: Sellars on Rules and Regularities’ illustrates one strain of this Darwinian rationalism. According to this picture, non-rational beings  may have adaptive responses to bits of their environments, but cognitively rational agents can have refined and well articulated thoughts about them. Cognitive rationality according to this view supervenes on practical rationality – a capacity to learn and apply public standards of conduct or warranted assertion.

For example, vervet monkeys will emit a distinct alarm call in response to the sighting of a leopard (‘a loud barking’) to the sound elicited by the sight of an eagle. The leopard alarm elicits a scramble to the ‘thinner branches’ of nearby trees (leopards being cats) whereas an eagle alarm causes a scramble under bushes where the vervets are safe from an aerial attack (Deacon 1997, 56).

These signals can be glossed in terms of their function in adaptively salient situations. However, according to the Sellarsian model of functional semantics which Brassier sets out, human sentences and thoughts don’t get their meaning by being coupled with specific environmental inputs and outputs in this way but only via inferential relations to other sentences and a class of  rules which connect language to its outside: language entry rules (governing transitions from perceptions to observation statements) and language departure rules (governing transitions from beliefs/sentences to actions). It is our socially transmitted grasp of inferential norms and the rules for getting into and getting out of a language-game which constitute these links and thus meaning and thought itself.

Depending on a speaker’s knowledge state, the English sentence ‘The king is dead’ could license a vast range of inferences from the formal existential generalization ‘Something is dead’ to a range of material inferences such as ‘there is a new King and it is Pete’ or ‘Mission accomplished!’ and could, likewise, occur in response to a vast range of perceptions (seeing an obituary in a newspaper, observing the mistless speculum above the mouth of the expired monarch or a flat line on an oscilloscope, etc.). The dispositions that ground the inferential linkages between sentences and extra-linguistic events are highly complex. Finally, as Brassier emphasizes in his presentation, full linguistic competence includes the capacity to draw metalinguistic inferences about the linguistic utterances and inscriptions of an object language OL in a metalanguage ML (ML being a part of OL in natural languages).

According to Sellars, to ‘grasp’ the meaning of a term in a language is to have understood its position in this inferential economy rather than to stand in some non-natural relation to an abstract entity (Sellars 1974, 430). The capacity for rational thought, is likewise, a capacity for discursive thought insofar as unvocalized thoughts have the same inferential roles as sentences. This is no more problematic than ‘oder’ in German and ‘or’ in English being equifunctional since inferential roles are substrate neutral.

As Brassier says, this model of linguistic understanding is appealing to naturalists so far as it treats discursive thinking as an embodied competence or ‘know how’ rather some mysterious capacity for grasping abstract entities (Sellars 1954).

It also gives formal expression to the difference between animal signaling and human language. The adaptive role of a trait like the vervet alarm depends on its utility in a particular environmental context. The inferential role of a sentence is holistic since it depends on the inferential roles of all other sentences or words in a language. There is thus no way to map the selected function of a detection or signaling system onto an inferential role. Brassier argues that the distinction between evolved functions and rationally articulated inferential affiliations conceptually demarcates the objective order of things and the rational order of concepts.

Pressure can be applied to Sellars’ account without relinquishing its naturalistic insights, however. For example, once we allow that linguistic knowledge consists largely in grasping material inferences – those expressing domain-specific understanding – a principled distinction between semantic knowledge and knowledge of the world is difficult to enforce, as Donald Davidson has argued on independent grounds. A Davidsonian radical interpreter who wishes to interpret an alien language L from scratch might represent the inferential roles of the sentences of L in a recursive truth theory à la Tarksi but getting to this point would require the interpreter to have a large body of true beliefs about the features of the world that the utterances of L describe – e.g. the behaviour of colour predicates or the mechanical properties of liquids. If the knowledge of a successful radical interpreter of L is a model for the understanding of a competent speaker in L, then grasping meanings cannot be a matter of grasping intra-linguistic relationships alone.

Even the possessor of a semantic theory which works reliably over the community of L-speakers will confront refractory utterances in which the speaker might be construed as uttering nonsense, untruths, or, like Joyce and Mrs Malaprop, iterating words in ways not covered in the theory! In those cases she needs to decide whether to revise her theory or treat these cases as degenerate. It should be obvious that there could be no purely linguistic rules which determined how to proceed here since the problem is to determine what language OLj is being spoken by framing one’s metalanguage (the theory T for Lj) to fit the empirical facts. If the predicament of the radical interpreter is a model for the predicament of the ordinary speaker of a language, then we will regularly be in the position of having to figure out meanings that are not prescribed by shared rules.

Slavoj Zizek’s challenge in the Q&A session following Brassier’s talk exemplifies this situation nicely. He cites the following exchange between Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald’s characters in Brassed Off (the two characters are standing outside Fitzgerald’s house at night):

Fitzgerald: “Would you like to come in for a coffee”?

McGregor: “There is a problem. I don’t drink coffee”?

Fitzgerald: “I haven’t got any coffee”

Reading this armed with books of community-wide semantic and pragmatic theory alone would be idiotic. One needs to grasp standard usage sufficiently to know that the conventions are being joked to get the implicature of “I haven’t got any coffee.” But the ‘prior theory’ of English is just an input to interpretation. It does not afford a rule that assures a correct reading. If this kind of situation recurs in human social intercourse then there better be more to our ability to ken than our grasp of a prior set of inferential roles.

Languages as stable systems of conventions or rules shared between interlocutors need not exist for such interpretation to be possible (Davidson 1984, 14). Speakers may use words and different ways without communication being impossible. Even radical differences in usage need not forestall communication as along as they have the wit and luck to arrive at good passing interpretations of each another. It follows that language cannot be a kind of translucent glass which stands between human thinkers and an inhuman world. As Frank Farrell has observed, if the ontologically deflationary theories of thinkers like Davidson or Derrida are on the right track neither thought nor language can have the requisite “hardness” to stand between us and things in this way (Farrell 1996).

If so, Brassier’s conception of thought as an internally related ‘symbolic economy’ distinct from nature is unhelpful. Admittedly it provides an initially bracing way of understanding realism as a commitment to some radical difference between the non-conceptual world of transcendent nature and the immanent space of ‘reasons’. However, such invocations of radical otherness depend on a reification of something that is transcended by the Other and there are independent grounds for holding that this gives us a misleading account of the nature of both.

Davidson, Donald (1984). Communication and convention. Synthese 59 (1):3 – 17.

Davidson, Donald (1986). ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’, in Ernest LePore (ed.) Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson (Oxford: Blackwell).

Farrell, Frank (1996). Subjectivity, Realism and Postmodernism: The Recovery of the  World in Recent Philosophy ( Cambridge University Press).

Deacon, T. (1997). The symbolic species: The co-evolution of language and the human brain. London: Penguin

Sellars, Wilfrid (1954). Some reflections on language games. Philosophy of Science 21 (3):204-228.

Sellars, Wilfrid (1974). Meaning as functional classification. Synthese 27 (3-4):417 – 437.


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Donald Davidson

On April 25, 2011, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1


[Here's an unpublished dictionary entry on Donald Davidson (from 2004). A modified version is to be found in the 2005 Edinburgh Dictionary of Continental Philosophy (John Protevi ed.)]

Donald Davidson (b. 1917, d. 2003), American philosopher whose essays on language, mind and knowledge extend Quine’s attack on the reification of meaning and epistemological foundationalism. In ‘Mental Events’ (1970) he also propounded an influential form of non-reductive materialism. Drawing, here, on his theory of linguistic interpretation, he argues that beliefs, desires and actions are only ascribable on the assumption that they are interrelated in a largely reasonable and consistent manner. Since psychology, unlike physics, is governed by norms of rationality, strict psychophysical laws relating physical states and contentful mental states are impossible. This is compatible with each mental state being a ‘token’ of a physical type: hence Davidson’s characterisation of his position as ‘anomalous monism’. ‘Actions, Reasons and Causes’ (1963) argues on similar grounds that while rendering action intelligible from an agent’s point of view, explanatory reasons must also be causally responsible for behaviour.

Davidson’s philosophy of language addresses philosophical constraints on theories of linguistic understanding. ‘Truth and Meaning’ (1967) argues that knowledge of the truth conditions of assertions suffices for understanding them and that Tarski’s account of truth in formalised languages shows how a semantic theory could eschew generalised conceptions of meaning or linguistic representation. Subsequent essays develop a metatheory of radical interpretation, specifying how interpreters could test whether a truth theory is interpretative for an uninterpreted language. The criterion of empirical success here is that a theory correctly predicts circumstances of utterance for arbitrary sentences of a language. This implies semantic holism: that the meaning of a term reflects its place in the totality of linguistic behaviour. Such behaviour counts as evidence only if, applying the ‘principle of charity’, speakers are assumed to have largely true beliefs. ‘The Structure and Content of Truth’ (1990) argues that interpretation presupposes a grasp of truth irreducible to theoretical notions like correspondence or coherence. ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’ (1986) employs literary cases of unconventional speech such as Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop to argue that the notion of a common language has little explanatory role in semantics – a line of reasoning comparable to Derrida’s use of the notion of iterability to deconstruct philosophical appeals to convention or shared practice.

Like Quine, Davidson holds that interpretations are underdetermined by considerations of charity. There are, in consequence, no ‘deeper’ facts that could allow an interpreter to decide between competing interpretative theories explaining the same speech behaviour. Charity and the resultant ‘semantic indeterminacy’ have broader epistemological import. ‘In ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’ (1974) they are deployed against empiricist and transcendentalist pictures of mind ‘forming’ the world from unconceptualised ‘content’ which he takes to underlie relativism and strong incommensurability claims. Strong Kantian parallels can be found, however, in ‘Thought and Talk’ (1975) and ‘Rational Animals’ (1982) where it is argued that only creatures possessing a concept of belief can have beliefs and that an understanding of objectivity emerges in the intersubjective context of linguistic interpretation. ‘The Myth of the Subjective’ (1987) argues that the mental content is only fixed under charitable interpretations of an agent’s activity within a common world, thereby undermining Cartesian-style appeals to intrinsically contentful ‘Ideas’ as a basis for philosophical reflection.

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On the Very Idea of a Super-Swarm

On March 8, 2011, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

The best we can do to understand a post-singularity dispensation, Virnor Vinge argues, is to draw parallels with the emergence of an earlier transformative intelligence: “[What] happens a month or two (or a day or two) after that? I have only analogies to point to: The rise of humankind” (Vinge 1993).

Vinge’s analogy implies that we could no more expect to understand a post-singularity mind than a rat or non-human primate – lacking refined propositional attitudes – could understand justice, number theory, and public transportation.

While this does not provide a rigorous theory of the human-posthuman difference (indeed, I would argue that no such theory could be possible a priori) it captures a central ethical worry about the implications of radical enhancement.

This is that prospective technically modified successors to humans may be not be recognizable as potential members of a communal ‘we’ or prone to recognize humans as ethically significant others. It is not the prospect of technical modification to humanity per se (wide or narrow) that concerns us but changes engendering beings so ‘alien’ that there would no longer be a basis for affinity, citizenship or shared concern with humans.

One reason why this might occur is suggested in Vinge’s worry that a posthuman reality could be “Too different to fit into the classical frame of good and evil” (Vinge 1993). Otherwise put, a post-singularity dispensation might include aliens minds, phenomenologies and values so different from those supervening on either narrow human biology or upon what I refer to as our ‘wide human‘ systems (e.g. enculturation into propositionally structured languages) that human-posthuman communication, co-operation or co-evaluation is impossible or pointless.

For example, public ethical frameworks in the secular democracies and beyond presuppose that candidates for our moral regard have similar phenomenologies, if only in sentient capacities for pain, fear, or enjoyment. However, most of these have more maximal conditions. Liberals, for example, place great emphasis on the human capacity for moral autonomy, allowing us, in Rawls words, to ‘to form, to revise, and rationally to pursue a conception of the good’ (Rawls 1980, 525).

While theories of autonomy vary hugely in their metaphysical commitments, most require that candidates for moral personhood be capable of reflecting upon their lives and projects and thereby on the values expressed in the actions, lives and projects of their fellow persons. Arguably, this capacity has cognitive, affective and phenomenological preconditions. Cognitively, it presupposes the capacity for higher-order representation (to represent one’s own or others’ beliefs, desires, etc.). Affectively, it presupposes the capacity for feelings, emotions, and affiliations that form a basis for evaluating a life.  Phenomenologically it presupposes that persons experience the world as (or as if they were) a persistent subject or ‘self’.

Without the cognitive preconditions, no rational evaluation of values or social life would be possible. Without the affective and phenomenological preconditions, these evaluations would lack point or salience. A cognitive system incapable of experiencing itself as a persistent subject might have a purely formal self-representation (like my current thought about a region on my big toe), but could not experience humiliation, resentment or satisfaction that its life is going well because these attitudes require a rich apperceptive experience of oneself as a persistent subject.

This claim does not, it should be noted, entail metaphysical commitment to a substantial or metaphysically real self, but to a subjective phenomenology: the experience of being a self. It is possible and even likely, as Thomas Metzinger has argued, that our first person phenomenology is a ‘functionally adequate but representationally unjustified fiction’ resulting from the fact that the neural processes that generate our sense of embodied and temporally situated selfhood are phenomenally (if not cognitively) inaccessible to components of the system responsible for meta-representing its internal states (Metzinger 2004, 58, 279). If Metzinger is right, the self around whom my egocentric fears and ambitions revolve does not exist. As for Nietzsche, this implies that our experience of the self as a source of agency is likewise illusory, for it only reflects our unawareness of the chains of causation leading to our decisions and actions (Nietzsche 1992, 218-219, cited in Sommers 2007).

So the issue here is not metaphysical adequacy of public ethical frameworks like liberalism or virtue ethics but their applicability in a posthuman future. Allowing for arguable exceptions (such as Buddhism), they may all rest on a metaphysical error. However, the propensity for self-evaluation, feeling ‘reactive attitudes’ to the quality of others’ attitudes, attributing responsibility and praise, etc. all presuppose first person phenomenology and, arguably, are necessary for human social forms. Thus the ‘user illusion’ of persistent selfhood may be functionally necessary for human life because necessary for any culturally mediated experience of moral personhood.

However, Vinge argues that a super-intelligent AI++ might lack awareness of itself as a persistent “subject”.

Some philosophers might regard this prospect with scepticism. After all, if having subjectivity, or Dasein, etc., is a condition for general intelligence, a subjectless posthuman could not be regarded as generally intelligent. However, the validity of such objections would hinge a) on the scope of any purported deduction of the subjective conditions of experience or objective knowledge and b) on the legitimacy of transcendental methodology as opposed, say, to naturalistic accounts of subjectivity and cognition.

If, as writers such as Metzinger, Daniel Dennett or Michael Tye argue, we can naturalize subjectivity by analysing it in terms of the causal-functional role of representational states in actual brains, then it is legitimate to speculate on the scope for other role-fillers. Even if all intelligences need Dasein, it doesn’t follow that all modes of Being-in-the-world are equivalent or mutually comprehensible. Our Dasein, Metzinger emphasizes, comes in a spatio-temporal pocket (an embodied self and a living, dynamic present):

[The] experiential centeredness of our conscious model of reality has its mirror image in the centeredness of the behavioral space, which human beings and their biological ancestors had to control and navigate during their endless fight for survival. This functional constraint is so general and obvious that it is frequently ignored: in human beings, and in all conscious systems we currently know, sensory and motor systems are physically integrated within the body of a single organism. This singular “embodiment constraint” closely locates all our sensors and effectors in a very small region of physical space, simultaneously establishing dense causal coupling (see section 3.2.3). It is important to note how things could have been otherwise—for instance, if we were conscious interstellar gas clouds that developed phenomenal properties (Metzinger 2004, 161).

A post-human swarm intelligence composed of many mobile units might distribute its embodiment or presence to accommodate multiple processing threads in multiple presents. We might not be able to coherently imagine or describe this phenomenology, but our incapacity to imagine X is, as Dennett emphasizes, not an insight into the necessity of not-X (Dennett 1991, 401; Metzinger 2004, 213).

The inaccessibility of the posthuman and the posthuman impasse

If artificial intelligences or other potential entities of the kind grouped under the ‘posthuman’ rubric could have non-subjective phenomenologies, then there are prima facie grounds for arguing that they would be both hermeneutically and evaluatively inaccessible for contemporaneous humans or for modestly augmented transhumans – we might refer to both variants of humans using Nicholas Agar’s neologism ‘MOSH’:  Mostly Original Substrate Human (Agar 2010, 41-2).

The alienness and inaccessibility of such beings would not be due to weird body plans or, directly, superhuman intelligence. There are numerous coherent SF speculations in which humans, intelligent extra-terrestrials, cyborgs and smart, loquacious AI’s communicate, co-operate, manipulate one another, argue about value systems, fight wars, and engage in exotic sex. However, these democratic transhumanist utopias or galactic empires are predicated on narrow humans and narrow non-humans (whether ET’s or droids) sharing the functional requirements for subjective phenomenology and moral personhood. The kind of beings that might result from Vinge’s transcendental event, however, could lack the phenomenological self-presentation which grounds human autonomy while having phenomenologies and metarepresentational capacities that would elude human comprehension.

As I have suggested elsewhere, this prospect represents a possible impasse for contemporary transhumanism rooted, as it is, in these public ethical frameworks grounded on conceptions of autonomy and personhood. How should transhumanists respond to the possibility that their policies might engender beings whose phenomenology and thought might exceed both our hermeneutic and evaluative grasp?

On the Very Idea of an Impasse: A Davidsonian objection

Donald Davidson’s objections to the intelligibility of radically incommensurate or alien conceptual schemes or languages might give us grounds to be suspicious of the very idea of the radically alien intelligences. In ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’, Davidson suggests that theories of incommensurability must construe conceptual schemes: in terms of a Kantian scheme/content dualism; or a relation ‘fitting’ or ‘matching’ between language and world. Davidson claims that the Kantian trope presupposes that the thing organized is composite, affording comparison with our conceptual scheme after all (Davidson 2001a, 192). Since incommensurability implies the absence of such a common point of comparison, the propositional trope – fitting the facts or the totality of experience, or whatever – is all that is left. For Davidson, this just means that the idea of an acceptable conceptual scheme is one that is mostly true (Ibid. 194). So an alien conceptual scheme or language by these lights would be largely true but uninterpretable (Ibid.).

For Davidson’s interpretation-based semantics, this is equivalent to a language recalcitrant to radical interpretation. But the assumption that alien linguistic behaviour generates largely true ‘sentences’ is just the principle of charity that radical interpreter must assume when testing a theory of meaning for that language.

To re-state this in terms of the current problematic, if alien posthumans had minds, they would have a publicly accessible medium which tracks truths; allowing us to test a semantics for alienese.

Davidson holds that knowledge of an empirical theory specifying the truth conditions of arbitrary sentences of a language would suffice for interpreting the utterances of its speakers (given knowledge that the theory in question was interpretative for it). If we allow this (ignoring, for now, the standard objections to the claim that a truth theory for L would be, in effect, be a theory of meaning for it), then that posthumans having minds at all would entail their interpretability in principle for beings with different kinds of minds.

So does Davidson’s hermeneutics of radical interpretation rescue transhumanism from aporia by deflating the idea of the radical alien?

I think not. Firstly, we have to relinquish the idea that our interpretative knowledge of the radical alien must consist in some explicit formal device such as a Tarskian truth theory. The role of formal semantics in Davidson’s work is to explicate our informal comprehension of language. An interpretative theory can be implicit in an interpreter’s pre-reflective grasp of the inference relationships of a language and her ability to match truth conditions with true utterances (Davidson 1990, p. 312).

Now suppose a human radical interpreter is required to interpret a really ‘weird’ posthuman such as an ultra-intelligent swarm. Davidson’s semantics provides grounds for believing that the swarm-mind would not be a cognitive thing-in-itself: inaccessible in principle to minds of a different stamp. However, this entails that if we could learn to follow whatever passes for inferences for the swarm and track the recondite facts that it affirms and denies, we would understand swarmese. But contingencies might hinder attempts by any MOSH’s in the area to understand the swarm medium of thought, even given principled interpretability.

Even if we suspend the assumption that interpretative knowledge must consist in a formal theoretical model, it is not clear that we can suspend the constraint that it constitutes beliefs or issues in sentences about the truth conditions of sentences or sententially structured attitudes.

However, the public medium employed by a swarm could be non-propositional it nature and thus not straightforwardly expressible in sentential terms. For example, it might be a non-symbolic system lacking discrete expressions. Simulacra – as the computer scientist Brian MacLennan refers to these continuous formal systems – would, by hypothesis, be richer and more nuanced than any discrete language (MacLennan 1995; Roden Forthcoming). Their semantics as well as their syntax would be continuous in nature. The formal syntax and semantics for a simulacrum can be represented symbolically in continuous mathematics but an interpretation of a non-discrete representational system with a discrete one could be massively partial since it would have to map discrete symbols onto points of a continuum. Thus whereas a discrete system might distinguish the proposition P from its negation using the binary operator ‘Not’ via a semantic mapping onto one of two semantic values ({true, false}) a non-discrete equivalent could have any number of shadings between P and its negation.

The effectiveness of any propositional interpretation of a simulacrum would hinge on the dynamical salience of these shadings within the cognitive dynamics of the system under interpretation. Most of the shadings between ‘Snow is white’ and ‘Snow is not white’ might be differences that make no difference for the swarm. On the other hand, the continuum could contain a rich dynamic structure whose cognitive implications could not be conveyed in discrete form at all.

We do not know whether sophisticated thought could function without using a syntax and semantics along the lines of our recursively structured languages and formal systems – at least as a component of the hybrid mental representations discussed by active externalists (See Clark 2006). However, my response to the Davidsonian objection makes a case for the conceivability of sophisticated cognitive systems surpassing Wide Human interpretative capacities – i.e. those mediated by public symbol systems. If our imaginary swarm intelligence were a system of this type, then swarm thinking could be as practically inaccessible to humans as human thinking is for cats or dogs; if not inaccessible in principle to systems with the right computational resources.

These considerations support the speculative claim that posthuman lives might be interpretable in principle, but not by us. Moreover, even if the cognitive inaccessibility of posthumans is exaggerated in this claim, we have noted grounds for thinking that they could be so phenomenologically unlike us that public ethical systems of personal autonomy, good or virtue cannot be applied to them.


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Clark, A. (2003), Natural Born Cyborgs’. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, A. (2006), ‘Material Symbols’, Philosophical Psychology Vol. 19, No. 3, June 2006, 291–307.

Clark A. and D. Chalmers (1998), ‘The Extended Mind’, Analysis 58(1), 7-19.

Davidson, D., (1984,) ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’, in D. Davidson, Inquiries into Meaning and Truth, (Clarenden press, Oxford) pp. 183-198.

____(1990). ‘The Structure and Content of Truth’, Journal of Philosophy, 87 (6), pp. 279-


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Cognition’ in Proceedings of the IEEE Workshop on Architectures for Semiotic Modeling

and Situation Analysis in Large Complex Systems, Monterey,

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by Walter Kaufmann. The Modern Library.

Rawls, John (1980), ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’, The Journal of Philosophy, 77(9), pp. 515-572.

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