(Image from http://eden.rutgers.edu/~kmg215/425/ewp-final/ewp-background.html)
Recall Well’s time traveller on the terminal beach, billions of years in the future; his encounter with a tentacled creature on that dark shore. He learns nothing of it but only experiences an abject terror that results in his return to Edwardian Richmond. What if this entity is not only uninterpreted but, in some sense, so strange, so “other” as to be uninterpretable – a motif replicated in the later weird fiction of Lovecraft and Vandermeer. This raised the question of whether there is something deeply incoherent about the idea of the radical alien. The worry is that agenthood and uninterpretability are at odds here.
Otherwise put we have the following paradox:
Paradox of the Radical Alien (PRA)
- The behaviour of radical aliens is not interpretable as actions.
- Radical aliens are agents.
- An entity whose behaviour cannot interpreted as actions is not an agent.
Each of statements is incompatible with the conjunction of the other two. Note also that the concept of interpretation here is implicitly anthropocentric. As in Weird Fiction, the alien is conceived as alien to “us”, to humans, to some appropriate “we”. Hence, the PRA assumes unique invariances on understanding and agency that humans (among others) satisfy.
Why should we expect there to be such invariances? Well, maybe there aren’t – in which case the concept of interpretation is too ambiguous to yield an interesting sense of the uninterpretable. But a central swathe of moral philosophy and epistemology post-Kant assumes there are – so the PRA is hardly out on a limb. Humans are said to occupy the space of reasons as persons, reciprocally able to evaluate others and answer to intersubjective norms. Within the analytic pragmatist tradition of Sellars, Davidson, Dennett and Brandom this relates to interpretation via a linguistic account of the place of assertions and propositional attitudes within the social game of “giving and asking for reasons”.[i]
According to Davidson, beliefs are among the basic attitudes. One cannot intend or desire that p without the capacity to form related beliefs about it:
If someone is glad that, or notices that, or remembers that, or knows that, the gun is loaded, then he must believe that the gun is loaded. Even to wonder whether the gun is loaded, or to speculate on the possibility that the gun is loaded, requires the belief, for example, that a gun is a weapon, that it is a more or less enduring physical object, and so on (Davidson 1984: 155-6)
Believing that p means holding p true and thus requires the believer to understand the concept of truth. One cannot have beliefs, then, without understanding belief and the difference between true and false beliefs.
For Davidson, this presupposes an understanding that there could believers other than oneself with their own (true/false) perspectives on the world. And this is acquired by identifying or interpreting believers on the basis of what they say, when. Intentionality and agency are thus constituted by triangulating other’s concepts by comparing the truth conditions and inferential placings of public assertions in this baseline world.[ii]
Without going into the necessary details, a similar idea is developed in Robert Brandom’s elaboration of Sellarsian inferentialism. Intentions, for him, are practical commitments to action undertaken by doing what makes it is appropriate to attribute the corresponding intention to the agent (Brandom 1994: 257).
And this yields us proposition 3 in PRA. An entity uninterpretable by discursive creatures such as us would not count as an agent because to be an agent just is to be located in the space of reasons on the strength of one’s interpretable actions. There is no place external to this in which the incidents of agency can be identified.
In “Rational Animals” Donald Davidson calls this “the observability assumption”:
“an observer can under favourable circumstances tell what beliefs, desires, and intentions an agent has.” (Davidson 2001b: 99)
So the analytic pragmatist approach offers a reasonable justification for statement 3 while allowing us to specify the invariants from which the Weird could be encountered.
Statement 3 [or the observability assumption] imply local correlationism – or local anti-realism – for agency. If A has incidents of agency such as intentions, then it is possible to know that A has them.
Quentin Meillassoux uses the term “correlationism” to describe any philosophy that holds that we can never think about something without thinking it correlated with thought. The Observability Assumption, is correlationist spawn insofar as it sets up accessibility conditions for any agent in the universe. In thinking agents, we must think their interpretability for us.
This position is, of course, contrary to the claim that there could be unboundedly weird posthumans, descendants of humans that we could not understand.
Anthropologically Unbounded Posthumanism (AUP) is thus committed to a “speculative” conception of agency – conceiving agents whose agency could not be understood by us under idealized conditions of radical interpretation.
AUP rejects statement 3 – untying the paradox.
However, it can be objected that this backfires on the speculative posthumanist in two ways:
- There can be no beyond the invariants, if there are no invariants. But dropping the observability assumption (or statement 3) means rejecting the pragmatist conception that supports claims for invariance. Thereby undermining the hypothesis that there could be radical aliens.
- Rejecting 3 entails the possibility of identifying agents whose motivations and beliefs were wholly beyond us. If we keep the correlationist boundary, though, it seems it makes no sense to suppose such identification is even intelligible: being an agent correlates with interpretability.
To respond to 1, we need a position contrary to agent-correlationism (S3) consistent with enough anthropological invariance to make sense of something radically recalcitrant to human interpretative understanding.
To respond to 2, we need to untether the identification of agency from hermeneutic success at reading it.
If there are no universals structuring human communication and mutual understanding, we cannot justify the anthropocentric reading of “interpretation” in the PRA. The pragmatist conception of understanding that we find in Davidson and Brandom, and possibly Sellars, supports the invariance claim in a particular way, however, by implying a priori constraints on agency. If being an agent consists in being interpretable according to discursively expressible reasons, then clearly Cthulhu, the Area X entities or other radically weird posthumans like Mieville’s Weavers will be will either be assimilable within the space of reasons – thus agents, but not Weird agents – or will not qualify as agents at all. Thus the paradox would be resolved by denying the very conceivability of radical aliens.
But it is possible to question the a priori status of Brandomson style views without denying the existence of interpretative invariants.
Here’s how . Brandom himself suggests this line of attack in his criticism of Dennett’s intentional stance views. For Dennett, an entity qualifies as an agent with reasons if predicting its behaviour requires interpreters to attribute it the beliefs and desires it ought to have given its nature and environment. A being whose behaviour is “voluminously predictable” under this “intentional stance” is called an “intentional system” (IS). In IS theory, there is no gap between predictability under the intentional stance and having real intentionality (Dennett 1987: 13-42)
Brandom agrees that that intentional concepts are fundamentally about rendering agency intelligible in the light of reasons, but claims that IS theory furnishes an incomplete account. Interpretation is, after all, an intentional act; thus interpretationists need to elucidate the relationship between attributed intentionality and attributing intentionality. If we do not understand what counts as a prospective interpreter, we cannot claim to have understood what it is to attribute intentionality in the first place (Brandom 1994: 59).
So Brandomson needs an a priori account of interpretation and interpretability if they are to support the a priori claims for agencyhood that support S3 or the observability assumption. It might seem that they give us this by describing interpreting agents embedded within a world of discursively structured reasons or interpretations.
Unfortunately, ascribing or acknowledging a place within the space reasons is an interpretative act. Neither account explains this placing other than by appealing to what an interpreting subject might do in ideal conditions (Davidson) or to implicit interpretative norms.
The pragmatist-interpretationist account depend on a supplementary subject, a phantom stranger, whose powers and dispositions account for judgements of rationality, meaning and normativity; but whose nature and possibilities are just assumed. Another way of putting this is that the phenomenology of interpretation or Brandom-style deontic assessment is “dark” (See Roden 2013; 2014 82-104; Forthcoming). The fact that we have it and have some knowledge of its instances leaves us ignorant both of its underlying nature and (by extension) of the full space of interpretative and psychological possibility.
R. Scott Bakker argues that this enveloping darkness is what we might expect given what he has christened “Blind Brain Theory”. Roughly BBT claims that the processes through which brains and bodies interpret their mental lives cannot model their own causal complexity – hence their aura of phenomenal immediacy. We seem supernatural, Bakker writes, “because we cannot cognize ourselves as natural, and so cognize ourselves otherwise” (Bakker 2014).
Thus the interpretationist position systematises human interpretative judgements while telling us nothing of the inhuman possibilities inhering in the human. They remain beholden to an idea of in-principle interpretability that they cannot cash in.
If this is right, then interpretation – far from being an anthropocentric concept – must be decoupled from the human-centred theories of meaning and subjectivity that employ it. This speculative opening is consistent with empirical invariants in human interpretation. There may be human-invariant ways of understanding others and self-understanding from which our picture the standard moral agent emerges. These need not be a priori conditions of possibility, but simply reflect the way in which mind-reading skills have evolved in these parts, so far.[iii]
I conclude that claims for anthropological invariance do not rule out speculative claims for radically nonhuman agency or thought. For all anyone knows, posthuman agency could be Cthulhu-weird or Area X weird, but no less considerable than ours.
This decoupling has problematic implications for Speculative Posthumanism itself, however, which I want to embrace not resist. The disconnection thesis is, after all, articulated in terms of agential independence from human systems. However, if this must be tied to a speculative conception of agency must it also be without determinate content? In Ch6 of Posthuman Life I circumvented this problem by specifying a minimal conception of agency derived from biological accounts self-maintaining systems which both human and non-human agents might satisfy. As with the Disconnection Thesis itself, the trick was to formalise our ignorance rather than specify what posthuman agents would be like.
However, the aesthetics of the Weird suggests a complementary philosophical strategy. Consider the Time Traveller’s encounter with the shoreline creature. He, or the reader identifies the creature as some kind of agent, just like Cthulhu and Area X . Yet, as with those entities, little is known of them beyond their horrific effects.
In the Southern Reach Trilogy we encounter an utterly alien being known as the “crawler” that produces an enigmatic text on the walls of an inverted tower, writing in a fungus or moss. This invites interpretation, but there is no guarantee that interpretation is possible. In fact (Spoiler Warning) we never discover the meaning of the portentous mycological script.
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dimlit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been. In the black water with the sun shining at midnight, those fruit shall come ripe and in the darkness of that which is golden shall split open to reveal the revelation of the fatal softness in the earth. The shadows of the abyss are like the petals of a monstrous flower that shall blossom within the skull and expand the mind beyond what any man can bear, but whether it decays under the earth or above on green fields, or out to sea or in the very air, all shall come to revelation, and to revel, in the knowledge of the strangling fruit—and the hand of the sinner shall rejoice, for there is no sin in shadow or in light that the seeds of the dead cannot forgive. And there shall be in the planting in the shadows a grace and a mercy from which shall blossom dark flowers, and their teeth shall devour and sustain and herald the passing of an age. That which dies shall still know life in death for all that decays is not forgotten and reanimated it shall walk the world in the bliss of not-knowing. And then there shall be a fire that knows the naming of you, and in the presence of the strangling fruit, its dark flame shall acquire every part of you that remains (Vandermeer 2014a)
We learn more of the Crawler’s origins in the final book, Acceptance, but this provides no key to understanding its “purposes” or projects – let alone what the question regarding strangling fruit means. If anything, the more we learn, the more enigmatic the Crawler and its script becomes. There is a gap, then, between eliciting of a reading and the reading – the reading or the reader may never arrive. Likewise, there can be a gap between experiencing another as agent and
. . .
(I’m grateful to Mike Wheeler for helping me to clarify the last distinction)
Bakker____2014, “Zahavi, Dennett, and the End of Being” https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2016/05/28/zahavi-dennett-and-the-end-of-being/, Accessed 22 June 2016.
Brandom, R. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Harvard university press.
Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
____2001b. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Miéville, C., 2012. On Monsters: Or, Nine or More (Monstrous) Not Cannies. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 23(3 (86), pp.377-392.
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: Brandom and Bounded Posthumanism’. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn
VanderMeer, J., 2014a. Annihilation: A Novel. Macmillan.
VanderMeer, J., 2014b. Authority: A Novel. Macmillan
VanderMeer, J., 2014c. Acceptance: A Novel. Macmillan.
[i] In its purest form, this position implies discursive agency thesis (DAT). DAT says that agents must have the capacity for public language because agency requires contentful intentional states, like beliefs; only available to creatures equipped to fulfil the functions of discourse. So a being that cannot interpret others in sentential form (by ascribing proposition attitudes like beliefs, desires, intentions) is not really an agent or is only derivatively so Given the DAT, maze-running robots or crafty raccoons might be predictable from the intentional stance; but their intentionality remains observer-relative; a projection from the attitudes of interpreting subjects.
[ii] Conversely, a creature who we could not interpret as acting for reasons could not be interpreted as believing anything either. It could not occupy the semantic crucible formed by the baseline world.
[iii] According to Peter Carruthers our working memory accesses propositional attitudes indirectly, by co-opting a social mind-reading faculty evolved to understand the intentions of others for the purposes of introspection. If true, this seems like an entirely contingent limitation. Not conditions of possibility for agency – only possibility relative to contingent biological constraints deriving from human evolutionary history.
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.
Anti-reductionist physicalists or materialists deny that psychology can be theoretically reduced to physics but allow physics sovereignty concerning what exists. Anti-reductionist arguments vary but a common line of attack against reductionism is that psychology expresses rational or normative relationships between mental states; not causal or functional relationships of the kind expressed in theories of natural science. Thus in Sellars “Two Images” account physics and natural science tells us what exists but humans still encounter themselves in a normatively structured “space of reasons”. Donald Davidson refers to his own version of this position as “anomalous monism” (AM):
“Anomalous monism resembles materialism in its claim that all events are physical, but rejects the thesis, usually considered essential to materialism, that mental phenomena can be given purely physical explanations. Anomalous monism shows an ontological bias only in that it allows the possibility that not all events are mental, while insisting that all events are physical” (Davidson 2001: 214)
Davidson’s account seeks to reconcile three claims that appear to be in tension: 1) that mental events causally interact with physical events; 2) that causal relations occur only where the events in question are covered by strict deterministic laws; 3) “that there are no strict deterministic laws on the basis of which mental events can be predicted and explained (the Anomalism of the Mental).”
Davidson aims to do this by arguing from the claim that the existence of causal relationships between events only implies that there is some true description of the relationship expressing a strict nomic relationship. The reconciliation is possible because causal relations obtain between token singular events while laws are linguistically expressed generalisations. Mental events can be causally related to one other or to non-mental events.
But, according to Davidson, causality is nomological only in that where two events are causally related, they have linguistic descriptions that express a law. It does not follow that “that every true singular statement of causality instantiates a law” (215). Thus a statement like “Helen’s belief that Justin was murdered was caused by her seeing blood in the kitchen” adverts to a law like relationship between a token of blood in the kitchen and a token belief about murder but does not state it. The law-like relationship, for Davidson, would have to be expressed in terms of the states and dynamics of a physical system which allowed a deterministic inference about a future state – her belief token – again rendered in some physicalistic idiom.
Claim 3) Follows, Davidson thinks, if mental states are those addressed in propositional attitude ascriptions and that such ascriptions depend holistically on overall assessments of the rationality and cognizance of agents in their world. In the space of reasons, where propositional attitudes are ascribed to persons, it is always possible to revise attributions in the interests of overall cogency. There can be no single translation scheme that pre-empts all the evidence that could be relevant to such ascriptions (222-223). Thus whereas the theories in which physical regularities are stated must be closed to allow the formulation of exceptionless laws (homonomic) the language of propositional attitude ascription is necessarily open to multiple idioms or “heteronomic” (219):
“The heteronomic character of general statements linking the mental and the physical traces back to this central role of translation in the description of all prepositional attitudes, and to the indeterminacy of translation. There are no strict psychophysical laws because of the disparate commitments of the mental and physical schemes. It is a feature of physical reality that physical change can be explained by laws that connect it with other changes and conditions physically described. It is a feature of the mental that the attribution of mental phenomena must be responsible to the background of reasons, beliefs, and intentions of the individual.”(222)
In Nagelian terms, it would be impossible to formulate true bridge laws between a reducing theory in some physical idiom and a reduced psychological theory because the intentional side the biconditional could always be revised in the light of holistic considerations irrelevant to the “physical side”. Thus type-type psychophysical reduction appears impossible. Note that an analogous result is obtainable if we view the space of reasons as structured by implicit norms irreducible to behavioral regularities.
Of course, not all accounts of reduction require bridge laws between reduced and reducing theories, or treat theories as interpreted sets of sentences. It is still open to the reductionist to argue for a different form of reduction (Bickle 1993: 222-4). It is also open to the reductionist to argue that psychology is not peculiar in being inexpressible “as sets of generalizations” – this being true of all scientific theories (226) – or in being open to extra-theoretical idioms in which to describe their contexts of application to real systems. Maybe no theory (physical or otherwise) is truly heteronomic.
However, in the argument that follows I will suppose that Davidson’s anomalism is right, or, at least, that his account can be rectified in a form that is proof against neoreductionist assaults.
So let us assume that the psychological perspective in which agents have beliefs and desires and utter meaningful statements is conceptually irreducible (as Sellarsians say) to the scientific image of the world as a causal-physical system.
If so, then the possibility of a certain form of technological descendant of current humans (posthumans) implies that intentional psychology will be instrumentally if not theoretically eliminated.
That is, whatever its current value for humans, it could not play a similar role for the relevant class of posthuman. And this not because of any logical or ontological vices but because of it would be incapable of functioning as an idiom for interpretation and understanding among these hypothetical successors. So the anti-reductionist argument against theoretical reduction/elimination supports a metaphysical case for instrumental elimination.
The hypothetical entities in question are what I refer to in Posthuman Life and elsewhere as “hyperplastic agents”. An agent is hyperplastic if it can make arbitrarily fine changes to any part of its functional or physical structure without compromising either its agency or its capacity for hyperplasticity. For example, suppose a hyperplastic agent dislikes some unpleasant memories associated with the taste of milk. Whereas a merely plastic agent like ourselves might need hours of cognitive behavioral therapy to excise these, the hyperplastic simply needs to locate the neuronal ensembles and pathways associated with these memories and ensure that they are no longer linked in such a way that the memory of milk causes them to activate in turn.
Likewise, a hyperplastic would be in a position to alter any other informational or value-relevant state by physically altering the relevant brain states. Obviously, use the term “brain” broadly here to refer to those systems within the hyperplastic that are associated with “cognition”, “perception” or the “control of behaviour” in some intuitive sense of these terms. The original inspiration for the idea of the hyperplastic came from Steve Omohundro’s speculations about the goal structures of generally intelligent robots in his essay “The Basic AI Drives” (2008). We need not assume that the “brain” in question is a known biological system.
Davidson’s anti-reductionism implies token physicalism (each event that can be brought under a psychological description is identical to some physical event, since ontological physicalism is taken as a given).
So for any state in an agent with a psychological description there will be physical description of that state. For any such state there will interventions that the agent can make into the state which will produce a physically distinct successor state such that the former psychological description will no longer be true of it.
Now we can suppose that any hyperplastic agent will have an Agenda at a particular time. That is, it will not tinker with its internal states arbitrarily but wish to do so in ways that don’t kill it, do not undermine its capacity for hyperplasticity and that fulfill whatever desiderata are listed on the Agenda.
The interesting question (assuming Davidsonian anti-reductionism) is how the Agenda can be formulated. Can it be expressed in psychological terms (roughly, in terms of propositional attitudes or values)? If it is expressed in psychological terms, then anti-reductionism implies that for any Agent intervention at the physical level, it will not be possible to reliably infer the psychological outcome of the alteration.
This follows simply because there are no psychophysical laws. Moreover even rough generalisations over past interventions would not be much help. These might be reliable for merely plastic creatures whose basic design and structure remain fairly constant over time. But a hyperplastic agent is protean. Thus it cannot assume that the rough and ready psychophysical generalisations that have held over one phase of its existence will extend into another phase.
It follows that however a hyperplastic agent frames the Agenda it cannot be psychologically expressible because no reliable inferences can be drawn from future physical form to future psychology.
So if hyperplastics have Agenda’s, they would have to represent states that could be reliably inferred from facts about their physical constitution at a given time. But given Davidson’s anti-reductionism, they would have little use for psychological self-description for making generalisations about their current or future actions. Suppose a hyperplastic Agent self-attributes a belief b. A merely plastic agent like you or me might assume generalisations along the lines of “I will continue to hold b unless I find evidence from which some contrary of b can be inferred”. But a hyperplastic agent would not be able to assume such generalisations because there could be no evidence that an auto-intervention would not cause it to lose b regardless of the evidence in its favour.
So a hyperplastic agent could not use propositional attitude psychology to predict its own behaviour. Folk psychology would be equally impotent for predicting the behaviour of its fellow hyperplastics for the same reason.
If hyperplastic agents could exist and plan their self-interventions, they would have to employ an entirely different idiom to understand themselves or one another. A posthuman-making disconnection that resulted in the emergence of hyperplastics would inevitably to result in the instrumental elimination of folk psychological capacities among the population of hyperplastics, at least; since neither the capacity nor the linguistic idiom for attributing propositional attitudes would have predictive or hermeneutic utility.
This means that were humans to encounter hyperplastics, they would not be radically interpretable (in Davidson’s sense) because radical interpretation depends on the principle of charity and this, again, is framed in folk psychological terms.
I conclude that if hyperplastic agents are possible, we could not understand them without abandoning the conceptual framework we currently use to understand ourselves and our conspecifics. They would be radically uninterpretable.
Bickle, John (1992). Mental anomaly and the new mind-brain reductionism. Philosophy of Science 59 (2):217-30.
Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Davidson, Donald (2001). Essays on Actions and Events, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Omohundro, S. M. (2008). “The Basic AI Drives”. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and Applications 171: 483
I’ll be destruction testing my paper on Brandom and Posthumanism at the Open University in Milton Keynes, Wednesday 4 March at 2 pm in MR05 Wilson A 1st Floor. The piece is forthcoming in PHILOSOPHY AFTER NATURE Rosi Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn (eds.).
Here’s the abstract:
BRANDOM AND POSTHUMAN AGENCY: AN ANTI-NORMATIVIST RESPONSE TO BOUNDED POSTHUMANISM
By David Roden, Open University
I distinguish two theses regarding technological successors to current humans (posthumans): an anthropologically bounded posthumanism (ABP) and an anthropologically unbounded posthumanism (AUP). ABP proposes transcendental conditions on agency that can be held to constrain the scope for “weirdness” in the space of possible posthumans a priori. AUP, by contrast, leaves the nature of posthuman agency to be settled empirically (or technologically). Given AUP there are no “future proof” constraints on the strangeness of posthuman agents.
In Posthuman Life I defended AUP via a critique of Donald Davidson’s work on intentionality and a “naturalistic deconstruction” of transcendental phenomenology (See also Roden 2013). In this paper I extend this critique to Robert Brandom’s account of the relationship between normativity and intentionality in Making It Explicit (MIE) and in other writings.
Brandom’s account understands intentionality in terms of the capacity to undertake and ascribe inferential normative commitments. It makes “first class agency” dependent on the ability to participate in discursive social practices. It implies that posthumans – insofar as they qualify as agents at all – would need to be social and discursive beings.
The problem with this approach, I will argue, is that it replicates a problem that Brandom discerns in Dennett’s intentional stance approach. It tells us nothing about the conditions under which a being qualifies as a potential interpreter and thus little about the conditions for meaning, understanding or agency.
I support this diagnosis by showing that Brandom cannot explain how a non-sapient community could bootstrap itself into sapience by setting up a basic deontic scorekeeping system without appealing (along with Davidson and Dennett) to the ways in which an idealized observer would interpret their activity.
This strongly suggests that interpretationist and pragmatist accounts cannot explain the semantic or the intentional without regressing to assumptions about ideal interpreters or background practices whose scope they are incapable of delimiting. It follows that Anthropologically Unbounded Posthumanism is not seriously challenged by the claim that agency and meaning are “constituted” by social practices.
AUP implies that we can infer no claims about the denizens of “Posthuman Possibility Space” a priori, by reflecting on the pragmatic transcendental conditions for semantic content. We thus have no reason to suppose that posthuman agents would have to be subjects of discourse or, indeed, members of communities. The scope for posthuman weirdness can be determined by recourse to engineering alone.
Roden, David. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis”. In The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281–98. London: Springer.
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.
BRANDOM AND POSTHUMAN AGENCY: AN ANTI-NORMATIVIST RESPONSE TO BOUNDED POSTHUMANISM
David Roden, Open University
Introduction: Bounded Posthumanism
Posthumanism can be critical or speculative in orientation. Both kinds are critical of human-centered (anthropocentric) thinking. However, their rejection of anthropocentricism applies to different areas: Critical Posthumanism (CP) rejects the anthropocentrism of modern philosophy and intellectual life; Speculative Posthumanism (SP) opposes human-centric thinking about the long-run implications of modern technology.
Whereas critical posthumanists are interested in the posthuman as a cultural and political condition, speculative posthumanists are interested in a possibility of certain technologically created nonhuman agents. They claim that there could be posthumans – where posthumans would be “wide human descendants” of current humans that have become nonhuman in virtue of some process of technical alteration (Roden 2012; 2014, Chapter 5).
Despite differences in concern and methodology, however, CP and SP have convergent interests. CP requires that there are no transcendental conditions for agenthood derivable from parochial facts about human agency. If this is right, it must true of possible nonhuman agents as it is of actual nonhuman agents.
For this reason, I distinguish two claims regarding technological successors to current humans: an anthropologically bounded posthumanism (ABP); and an anthropologically unbounded posthumanism (AUP).
- There are unique constraints C on cognition and agency which any being qualifying as a posthuman successor to humans must satisfy.
- Agents satisfying C can know that they are agents and can deduce a priori that they satisfy C (they are transcendental constraints)
- Humans typically satisfy C.
ABP’s import becomes clearer if we consider the collection of histories whereby posthuman wide descendants of humans could feasibly emerge. I refer to this set as Posthuman Possibility Space (PPS – See Roden 2014: 53).
Given that posthumans would be agents of some kind (See Chapter 6) and given ABP, members of PPS would have to satisfy the same transcendental conditions (C) on agency as humans.
Daryl Wennemann assumes something along these lines in his book Posthuman Personhood. He adopts the Kantian idea that agency consists in the capacity to justify one’s actions according to reasons and shared norms. For Wennemann, a person is a being able to “reflect on himself and his world from the perspective of a being sharing in a certain community.” (Punzo 1969, cited in Wennemann 2013: 47). This is a condition of posthuman agency as much as of human agency
This implies that, whatever the future throws up, posthuman agents will be social and, arguably linguistic beings, even if they are robots or computers, have strange bodies, or even stranger habits. If so, PPS cannot contain non-anthropomorphic entities whose agency is significantly nonhuman in nature.
ABP implies that there are a priori limits on posthuman weirdness.
AUP, by contrast, leaves the nature of posthuman agency to be settled empirically (or technologically). Posthumans might be social, discursive creatures; or they might be different from us in ways that we cannot envisage short of making some posthumans or becoming posthuman ourselves.
AUP thus extends the critical posthumanist rejection of anthropocentrism to the deep time of the technological future. In Posthuman Life I defended it via a critique of Donald Davidson’s work on intentionality; coupling this with a “naturalistic deconstruction” of transcendental phenomenology in its Husserlian and Heideggerian forms (See also Roden 2013).
Some of these arguments, I believe, carry over to the more overtly normativist philosophy of Robert Brandom – a philosopher whose work I did not address in detail there (for reasons of space and incompetence). The account of the relationship between normativity, social practice, intentionality that Brandom provides in Making It Explicit, and in other writings, is one of most impressively detailed, systematic and historically self-aware attempts to explain subjectivity, agency and intentionality in terms of social practices and statuses. It thus merits the appraisal of all philosophical posthumanists, whether they are of a critical or a speculative bent.
First and Second-Class Agents
I will begin with a thumbnail sketch of how Brandom derives a priori conditions of possibility for agency and meaning from a theory of social practices. Then I will consider whether its foundations are capable of supporting this transcendental superstructure.
Brandom is a philosophical pragmatist. Like other pragmatists, he is committed to the claim that our conceptual and intellectual powers are grounded in our practical abilities rather than in relations between mental entities and what they represent (Brandom 2006).
His pragmatism implies a species of interpretationism with regard to intentional content. Interpretationists, like Daniel Dennett, claim that intentional notions such as “belief” do not track inner vehicles of content but help us assess patterns of rational activity on the part of other “intentional systems” (Wanderer 2008). Belief-desire talk is not a folk psychological “theory” about internal states, but a social “craft” for evaluating and predicting other rational agents.
For Dennett, an entity qualifies as an agent with reasons if predicting its behaviour requires interpreters to attribute it the beliefs and desires it ought to have given its nature and environment. A being whose behaviour is voluminously predictable under this “intentional stance” is called an “intentional system” (IS). In IS theory, there is no gap between predictability under the intentional stance and having real intentionality.
Brandom endorses Dennett’s claim that intentional concepts are fundamentally about rendering agency intelligible in the light of reasons. However, he argues that IS theory furnishes an incomplete account or intentionality. Interpretation is an intentional act; thus interpretationists need to elucidate the relationship between attributed intentionality and attributing intentionality. If we do not understand what kind of being could count as a prospective interpreter, we cannot claim to have understood what it is to attribute intentionality in the first place (Brandom 1994: 59).
Brandom goes one further. The intentionality attributed to intrinsically meaningless events or linguistic inscriptions seems entirely derived from interpreters. Similarly with relatively simple IS’s. Maze-running robots or fly-catching frogs can properly be understood from the intentional stance – making them true-believers by Dennett’s lights. But their intentionality seems likewise observer-relative; derived from attitudes of interpreting IS’s (60). To hold otherwise, he argues, is to risk a disabling regress. For if intentionality is derivative all the way up, there can be no real intentional attributions and thus no derivative (non-observer relative) intentionality (60, 276).
Brandom claims that his theory can be read as an account of the conditions an organism must satisfy to qualify an interpreting intentional system; that is to warrant attributions of non-derived intentionality rather than the as-if intentionality we can attribute to simpler organisms or complex devices.
Whatever else the capacity for original or “first class” intentionality includes, it must involve the ability to evaluate the cognizance and rationality of similar beings and thus to be answerable to reasons (61). Entities with first-class intentionality and thus the capacity to assess and answer to reasons in this way are referred to by Brandom as sapient. Entities with only derived intentionality may exhibit the sentient capacity to react in discriminating and optimizing ways to their environment, but the conceptual content of these responses is attributed and observer-relative.
The claim that intentionality or the capacity for objective thought implies the capacity to evaluate other thinkers obviously has a rich post-Kantian lineage. However, one of the clearest arguments for connecting intentionality and the capacity for other-evaluation is provided by Donald Davidson in his essay “Thought and Talk” (Davidson 1984: 155-170).
Davidson begins with the assumption that belief is an attitude of “holding” true some proposition: for example, that there is a cat behind that wall. If belief is holding true it entails a grasp of truth and the possibility of being mistaken; and thus a concept of belief itself. Thus we cannot believe anything without the capacity to attribute true or false beliefs about the same topic to our fellow creatures (Davidson 1984: 170; 2001b: 104).
This capacity presupposes linguistic abilities, according to Davidson, because attributing contents to fellow creatures requires a common idiom of expression. Absent this, the possession of a concept of belief and, thus, the very having of beliefs, is impossible.
Brandom agrees! We need language to have and attribute beliefs, and, by extension, practical attitudes corresponding to desires and intentions (231-2). However, his official account avoids talk of beliefs or intentions in order to steer clear of the picture of beliefs, etc. as inner vehicles of content (sentences in the head, say) rather than social statuses available to discursive creatures like ourselves.
For Brandom, the primary bearers of propositional content are public assertions. Thus he bases his elaborate theory of intentionality not on a theory of mental representations or sub-propositional concepts, but on a pragmatic account of the place of assertions within the social game of “giving and asking for reasons”.
Correlatively, Brandom’s semantics begins with an explanation of how assertions – and their syntactical proxies, sentences – acquire propositional content. Like Wilfred Sellars’ brand of functional semantics, it is framed in terms of the normative role of utterances within social practices which determine how a speaker can move from one position in the language-game to another.
In the case of assertions, the language-transition rules correspond to materially correct inferences such as that x is colored from x is red. Language entry-rules include observation statements which allow us to make claims like “There is snow on the grass” on the basis of our reliable dispositions to differentially respond (RDRDs) to recurrent states of our environment. Finally, “language exit rules” correspond to practical commitments to forms of non-linguistic action.
Thus Brandom agrees with other post-Wittgensteinian pragmatists that linguistic practices are governed by public norms. However, he follows Davidson in rejecting the “I-we” conception of social structure. (39-40; Davidson 1986). If meanings are inferential roles (as Dummett and Sellars also claim), then the content attributable to expressions will dance in line with the doxastic commitments of individual speakers.
Suppose one observes a masked figure in a red costume clambering up a skyscraper. The language entry rules ambient within your community of English speakers may entitle you (by default) to claim that Spiderman is climbing the building. However, you are unaware that Spiderman is none other than Peter Parker. So you are not yet entitled to infer that Peter Parker is climbing the building – although the substitutional rules of English would commit you to that further inference if (say) some reliable authority informed you of this fact.
This simple example shows that the inferential roles – thus meanings – of expressions like “Spiderman” are not fixed communally but have to vary with the auxiliary assumptions, sensitivities and dispositions of individual speakers. Understanding or interpreting the utterances and beliefs of others is thus a matter of deontic scorekeeping – that is keeping track of the way social statuses alter as speakers update their inferential commitments (Brandom 1994: 142).
Thus semantic and intentional content are co-extensive with the normative-functional roles of states and actions. It follows that what a belief or claim “represents” or is “about” is fixed by its status it can be ascribed from the perspective of various deontic scorekeepers (including the believer or claimant).
The second consequence – which I flagged earlier – is that a serious agent or thinker must, as Davidson held, be a language user. The inferential relations attributed by scorekeepers to pragmatically defined occurrences can only be expressed by a structured language with components such as predicates, singular terms and pronouns. Inferential roles are only learnable and projectable on this basis (Brandom 1994: Chapter 6). Thus Brandom’s account provides a pragmatic-semantic story with which to transcendentally partition PPS.
If posthumans are to be intentional agents in thrall to concepts, they will be subjects of discourse assessing one another according to public inferential proprieties.
The Norm-Grounding Problem
However, we only have reason to adopt this a priori portioning of PPS if normativism can contend with some difficult foundational issues. I will refer to the most pressing of these as “the norm-grounding problem”.
Brandom’s pragmatics implies that the rules which furnish deontic statuses are implicit in what we do, in our linguistic and non-linguistic performances, rather than in some explicit set of semantic rules. But what does it mean for a norm to be implicit in a practice? (Brandom 1994: 29-30; Hattiangadi 2003: 420; Rosen 1997).
Are norms a special kind of fact, to which our practices conform or fail to conform? If there were normative facts that transcended our actions, this could at least explain how our inferences can be held to account by them.
Brandom rejects factualism regarding norms. They are not, he claims, “part of the intrinsic nature of things, which is entirely indifferent to them” (48: Rosen 1997: 163-4).
This seems wise. If there were Platonic norms, it is far from clear how animals like us, or our evolutionary forebears, could come to be aware of them (see next section).
Brandom thus adopts a nonfactualist or “phenomenalist” position regarding norms. Non-normative reality is “clothed” in a web of normative statuses when speakers treat public actions as correct or incorrect, permitted or entitled (Brandom 1994: 48).
However, before considering Brandom’s nonfactualist account of norms in greater detail, it is instructive to consider a superficially appealing position that he rejects: regularism. Regularism is the claim that norms are regularities. To act according to a norm (or follow a rule) is simply to behave in conformity with a regularity (27).
Regularism is consonant with pragmatism because one can obey a regularity without having explicit knowledge of it – thereby avoiding the vicious regress that ensues if we require that semantical rules need to be explicitly grasped by speakers (Brandom 1994: 24-5). Regularism is also appealing to philosophical naturalists since it explains how norms depend (or supervene) on facts about the physical state and structure of individual speakers.
However, Brandom rejects this attempt to ground normative claims in factual claims. Here he follows Kripke’s reading of Wittgenstein’s discussion of rule-following: pointing out that any finite sequence of actions will conform to many or even an infinite number of regularities. Thus there is no such thing as the regularity that a finite performance conforms to. For any continuation of that performance “there is some regularity with respect to which it counts as ‘going on in the same way’” (MIE, 28). There are just too many ways of gerrymandering regularities for any given continuation of a performance and the simple regularity view provides no basis for selecting between them. So the simple regularity account fails to explain how a determinate norm can be implicit in practice.
The standard response to the failure of the simple regularity view is to shift attention from finite stretches of performance “to the sets of performances (for instance, applications of a concept) the individual is disposed to produce” (ibid: my emphasis).
The appeal of unpacking grasping a rule in terms of dispositions is that one can be disposed to do an infinite number of things which one does not actually do because of the absence of triggering input (Martin and Heil 1998: 284).
Thus it might seem that we can avoid the gerrymandering objection by saying that different agents A and B grasp the same rules where they are disposed to perform identically given the same triggering inputs.
However dispositionalism seems unable to account for misapplications of a rule.
A might be disposed to behave in the same ways under the same triggering conditions as B but whereas A is correctly following a rule (say plus) B is incorrectly following a different rule (normative behaviour is compatible with recalcitrance [Brandom 1994: 31]). Thus even though A and B exactly coincide in both their actual and their counterfactual performances, they can be following different rules (Martin and Heil 1998: 284-5). Thus if we unpack dispositions counterfactually we will be unable to account for mistakes in application or reasoning. Thus this version of dispositionalism, at least, is unable to explain how norms repose in practices.
So dispositions (if counterfactually conceived) do not help us solve the norm-grounding problem.
Deontic Statuses and Deontic Attitudes
As advertised, Brandom’s favoured account of norms is nonfactualist. We “clothe” a nonnormative world in deontic statuses by taking certain actions or utterances to be correct or incorrect (Brandom 1994: 161).
So normative statuses arise only insofar as there are creatures who can treat one another as committed or entitled to do this or that. In Brandom’s terminology: deontic statuses as assigned when creatures adopt deontic attitudes towards one another.
But what are deontic attitudes?
If they are necessarily intentional – like propositional attitudes – Brandom is stuck in a regress. The philosophical attraction of normative functionalism is that it promises to reduce intention-talk to norm-talk. If deontic attitudes are necessarily intentional, however, he has made little progress in explaining interpreting intentionality via social practices.
Moreover, his account would fail to accord with a minimal Darwinian naturalism. Norm instituting powers cannot have appeared fully formed but must have emerged gradually from the scum of sentience (Rosen 1997). Thus Brandom’s account must be consistent with the claim that merely sentient creatures capable only of reliable discriminatory dispositions to differentially respond to their environments (RDRD’s) – could non-magically acquire a sapient responsiveness to reasons.
Brandom is sensitive to these requirements. He argues that deontic attitudes can occur in “prelinguistic communities” which lack full noetic and agential powers (161). The simplest model of deontic attribution that he provides is one in which performances are assessed as something the performer is authorized by the withholding of sanctions – where sanctioning behaviour, here, is a manifestation of differentially responsive dispositions and not florid interpretative powers.
For example, the deontic status of being entitled to pass through a door might be instituted by a ticketing system in which “the ticket-taker is the attributer of authority, the one who recognizes or acknowledges it and who by taking the ticket as authorizing, makes it authorizing, so instituting the entitlement” (161) This account can be complicated if we introduce deontic attitudes that institute responsibilities on the part of agents.
For example, taking the Queen’s shilling makes one liable to court martial if certain military duties are not undertaken (163). According to Brandom these cases illustrate how social actors can partition “the space of possible performances into those that have been authorized and those that have not, by being disposed to respond differently in the two cases” (161-2: emphasis added).
Does this model show that Brandom’s account can satisfy the minimal naturalist constraints that he recognizes? A number of commentators – including Daniel Dennett and Anandi Hattiangadi – have pointed out that that it succumbs to the gerrymandering objections that Brandom cites against regularism (Dennett 2010; Hattiangadi 2003). Any performative regularities (actual or counterfactual) exhibited by actors and sanctioners in this simple model will be consistent with multiple normative readings of either behaviours – including interpretations which render the “deontic attitudes” mistaken. If the gerrymandering argument refutes regularist theories of rule-following, it refutes dispositionalist accounts of deontic attitudes.
As Hattiangadi points out, beefing up the noetic powers of instituters will avail little. If we furnish sanctioners with the power to make contentful judgements (about whether an agent is entitled to pass through the door, for example) we are already in the realm of the intentional (Hattiangadi 2003: 428).
It follows that a naturalistically constrained normativism does not appear able to explain how social beings can institute norms, thus normative statuses, thus determinate inferential semantic contents, without a vitiating appeal to florid intentional powers.
The Interpretationist Defense
Can Brandom’s account be repaired in a way that meets his minimal naturalist commitment?
Well, one defense that seems consistent with Brandom’s avowals elsewhere is to follow Davidson and Dennett by claiming that the certain kinds of social behaviour are norm-governed if a) members of our speech community would properly interpret them as normative or b) if an ideally rational interpreter privy to all the relevant behavioral facts would read them as normative. This response has something to recommend it. When interpreting alien social practices we are liable to appeal to our own background assumptions about what performances belong to the sortal “social practice”. Moreover, appealing to notion of an ideal interpreter can be of value when trying to understand the theoretical and empirical constraints on attributions of semantic or normative content.
However, as Hattiangadi remarks, this response misses the point of the dispositional analysis of deontic attitudes. This was to explain how a non-sapient community could bootstrap itself into sapience by setting up a basic deontic scorekeeping system. Appealing to actual or ideal interpreters simply replicates the problem with Dennett’s intentional stance approach since it tells us nothing about the conditions under which a being qualifies as a potential interpreter and thus little about the conditions for meaning, understanding or agency.
Similar problem afflicts Joseph Heath’s (2001) proposal that Brandomian norms emerge from reciprocal expectations supported by sanctions. The idea is that a first person acts in a certain way while expecting a sanctioning response from a second person. The second person, meanwhile, is disposed to respond to certain performances with sanctioning behaviour while the first person recognizes this. Where this minimal intersubjective couple converges towards a single pattern of behaviour over time, Heath argues, we are entitled to treat their activity as implying a norm.
Heath’s proposal may be fine if we assume that certain intentional powers are already in place – e.g. that each individual both expects and sanctions the activity of the other. However, as Hattiangadi’s appeal to the gerrymandering argument shows, this structure presupposes beings capable of intentional states such as expecting and sanctioning. This is presumably what distinguishes it from simpler cases of dynamical coupling where two physical systems converge towards a single pattern of behaviour. But if the normativist is serious about explaining the intentional in normative terms, they are not entitled to these assumptions.
If Brandom is right about the defects of Dennett-style or Davidson-style interpretationism, the tendency for his own account to regress to those positions is telling. It suggests that interpretationist accounts cannot explain the semantic or the intentional without regressing to assumptions about ideal interpreters or background practices whose scope they are incapable of delimiting.
The point is not that interpretationism is false but that it is ultimately unilluminating. It is empirically unproblematic that we interpret other speakers, texts, cultural artifacts, etc. However, if in-principle interpretation according to the intentional stance fixes the content of intentional discourse, but nature of such interpretation is ill-defined we have merely satisfied our curiosity about the nature of mindedness by appealing to our local mind-reading techniques. We do not yet know what the invariants (if any) of intentional interpretation are. Another way of putting this is that our practices of interpretation and deontic assessment are phenomenologically “dark”. The fact that we have them and have a little empirical knowledge of them leaves us ignorant both of their underlying nature and (by extension) of the space of interpretative and psychological possibility. Normativist ABP and its interpretationist variants thus provide no future-proof constraints on the space of possible minds or possible agents (See also Bakker 2014).
If so, then they provide no warrant for the claim that any serious agent must be a “subject of discourse” able to measure its own performances against public standards. Presumably, humans are agents of this kind, but the phenomenological darkness surrounding normativity implies that we should not presume that we understand what normativity must involve.
It follows that Anthropologically Unbounded Posthumanism is not seriously challenged by the argument that mind and meaning are constituted by social practices. AUP implies that we can infer no claims about the denizens of Posthuman Possibility Space a priori, by reflecting on the pragmatic transcendental conditions for semantic content. We thus have no reason to suppose that posthuman agents would have to be subjects of discourse of members of communities.
Nor (given our lack of any transcendental grasp of agency) are we entitled to reflect on the ethical status of very strange posthumans. We have no future-proof grasp of how strange posthumans might be, so we lack any basis for adjudicating the moral status of such beings. We may buy into a parochial humanism which accords humans subjects a level of moral consideration that is greater than the nonhuman creatures we know about. But this does not entail that there are not morally considerable states of being in PPS of which we are currently unaware which have little in common with the modes of being accessible to current humans. If posthuman politics is anthropologically unbounded, in this way, then any ethical assessment of the posthuman must follow on its historical emergence. If we want to do serious posthuman ethics, we need to make posthumans or become posthuman.
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This formulation allows that posthumans could be descended from technological assemblages which are existentially dependent on servicing “narrow” human goals. Becoming nonhuman in this sense is not a matter of losing a human essence but of ceasing to belong to a human-oriented socio-technical system: the Wide Human (Roden 2012; 2014). I refer to the claim that becoming posthuman consists in becoming independent of the Wide Human as “the Disconnection Thesis”.
Brandom also follows Kant in trying to understand semantic notions like reference and truth in terms of their roles in articulating judgement rather than as semantic or representational primitives.
Intentional systems are unlikely to contain sawdust or stuffing, but IS theory is agnostic regarding their internal machinery or phenomenology. Thus IS theory undercuts both eliminativist and reductionist accounts of intentionality while providing a workable methodology investigations into the mechanisms that actuate intentional systems.
“The key to the account is that an interpretation of this sort must interpret community members as taking or treating each other in practice as adopting intentionally contentful commitments and other normative statuses” (Brandom 1994: 61)
 I can express the belief that there is a cat behind that wall with a sentence in some natural language but I am also able to use the same sentence to attribute this belief to others.
 His subsequent, very detailed, analysis of subsentential expressions is necessarily decompositional rather than compositional – analyzing down rather than building up from simpler semantic components.
The point of attributions of belief or desire, for example, is to determine what an agent is committed entitled “to say or do”. Likewise, the point of affixing truth values to beliefs or statements is to assess or endorse their propriety within the game of giving and asking for reasons. Is the claimant entitled to assert that p? Are the inferential consequences of p that they acknowledge the actual consequences? (17, 542).
So for a rule with infinite application, it is not necessary for the rule user to have all the triggering instances “before his mind” to have grasped how to perform in any of these instances
Martin and Heil 1998 and Hohwy present a good case for holding that dispositions can avoid Kripkensteinean skeptical conclusions if construed realistically rather than in terms of statements about counterfactual behaviour.
 “Looking at the practices a little more closely involves cashing out the talk of deontic statuses by translating it into talk of deontic attitudes. Practitioners take or treat themselves and others as having various commitments and entitlements. They keep score on deontic statuses by attributing those statuses to others and undertaking them themselves. The significance of a performance is the difference it makes in the deontic score-that is, the way in which it changes what commitments and entitlements the practitioners, including the performer, attribute to each other and acquire, acknowledge, or undertake themselves.” (Brandom 1994: 166).
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.