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.
There is a concise but thought-provoking post over at the Philosophy of Brains blog by Gualtiero Piccinini here. ‘Psychosemantics’ refers to the project of explaining the intentional content of mental states in terms of non-intentional properties such as causal relations between head and world.
The problem with what Jerry Fodor refers to as ‘crude causal’ theories of content (CCT’s) is that they run up against the so-called disjunction problem: they aren’t sufficiently choosy about picking out the content constitutive properties from the ones that don’t matter. Thus a CCT might state a neural state type T represents some property P iff. tokens of P cause tokenings of T. So T means cat if it is reliably caused by tokens of catness.
The problem is this: CCT entails that any property at all which brings about T tokens is meant by it. So there can be no properties which cause its tokenings that it doesn’t mean. So CCT entails misrepresentation is impossible. But without misrepresentation we do not have representation.*
So psychosemantics becomes the game of constraining the indeterminacy of CCT type theories by heaping extra conditions on non-intentional properties. According to some (Dretske, Millikan) these are teleofunctional constraints. We amend CCT so that only properties T is evolved to pick out are meaning-constitutive.
Fodor’s ingenious alternative to this is assymmetric dependence theory. Where the mentalese/neuralese ‘cat’ means cat but can be tokened by the presence of bin bags, it must be because the causal link between ‘cat’ and cats constitutes its meaning in a way that the causal link with bin bags does not. Fodor’s solution is to say that the causal relations have different counterfactual properties. If ‘cat’ means cat but can be tokened by bin bags it is because I would not misidentify a bin bag as a cat but for the law that cats suffice to token ‘cat’. The same does not hold with ‘bin bags’. So there’s an asymmetry between the dependence of ‘cat’ tokenings on bin bags and its dependence on cats and this, so the story goes, suffices for ‘cat’ to mean cat or, at least, to not mean bin bag.
Piccinini notes that there is philosophical consensus that these and other emendations don’t work, but suggests they don’t fail so egregiously that we should give up on psychosemantics and opt for some anti-representationalist or anti-naturalistic alternative. This seems sensible to me. The achievement of psychosemantics is that it suggests ways of demoting meaning from the status of a transcendental mystery to that of a tough conceptual problem. Issues like disjunction and indeterminacy hardly warrant its abandonment.
For example, it seems reasonable to expect that content is usually just determinate enough to service the needs of biological systems: that there is no fact to the matter, say, about whether a frog’s visual system discriminates between the flies of its native marshes or the flying food pellets of the animal behaviourist’s lab.
As Dennett points out in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, this is hardly a disaster for the naturalization project. It may be the kind of thing we should expect in a world in which meaning supervenes on biological and cultural processes. Moreover, indeterminacy is not all bad:
Unless there were ‘meaningless’ or ‘indeterminate’ variation in the triggering conditions of the various frogs’ eyes, there could be no raw material (blind variation) for selection for a new purpose to act upon. The indeterminacy that Fodor (and others) see as a flaw in Darwinian accounts of the evolution of meaning is actually a precondition for any such evolution . . . Meaning, like function, on which it so directly depends, is not something determinate at its birth. It arises not by saltation or special creation, but by a (typically gradual) shift of circumstances. (Dennett 1995, 408)
If the fly-detector were determinately a detector of flies then translating the frogs to their high-tech zoo would drastically alter the epistemic virtues of their representational states. The frogs would be mistakenly responding to the pellets as flies. If the fly-flicker was selective in the new environment there would surely come a point at which it ceased being determinately a fly flicker and acquired a new role of pellet flicker. But, Dennett claims, nature provides no cut-off point at which the mechanism suddenly assumes a new function. Hence, the old function must have been indeterminate all along. There is nothing in the frogs or their environment that makes it the case that they would suddently shift from being representers to misrepresenters of flies as a consequence of environmental change.
I don’t see why this indeterminacy, however constrained by the holistic inter-animation of sentences, shouldn’t percolate up to our linguistic and propositional thinking. Words, like evolved traits, can be turned to new uses, acquire new linkages and disciplinary contexts of use. ‘Mass’ was conceived by Newtonians as being invariant between inertial frames, whereas modern physics distinguishes between rest mass and relativistic mass (Field 1973). There may still be every reason for post-Einsteinian radical interpreter’s to say that the Newtonians had false or approximately true beliefs about ‘total mass’ (Ibid.) or were really referring to ‘proper’ or rest mass (Ibid., 466). It is not at all obvious that there need fact to the matter about which interpretation (or theory of meaning) is correct.
Some might argue that if this indeterminacy holds at all levels, then this implies that psychosemantics is a hopeless cause. We can never isolate a set of non-semantic properties sufficient for a creature that possesses them having proper mass beliefs, say, that wouldn’t preclude it having total mass beliefs. So a classic Nagelian reduction where semantic properties are linked to non-semantic properties via biconditional bridge laws seems to be ruled out. The best we can hope for, some might argue, is the supervenience (perhaps global) of mental/semantic properties on physical or non-semantic ones. Thus two worlds that are non-semantically alike must be semantically alike – e.g. with regard to the range of semantic theories that are warranted for any believers they contain. But, as everyone knows, supervenience-naturalism hardly merits that description. The supervenience of mental properties on physical properties is compatible with central state materialism, psycho-physical parallelism and epiphenomenalism, for example.
However, there may still be an indirect naturalistic explanation of how semantic properties supervene on non-semantic properties which falls short of reduction. At a first shot any mechanistic explanations of the discriminatory and inferential capacities that underwrite this behaviour throws light on the supervenience relation insofar as it tells us how the non-semantic properties of beings might allow them to exhibit the pattern recognition skills and reasoning capacities that merit their behaviour being regarded as ‘texts’ (candidates for interpretation).
More on indirect naturalization and indeterminacy to follow.
Dennett, Daniel (1995), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, London Penguin.Field,
Harty (1973) ‘Theory Change and the Indeterminacy of Reference’, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol.. LXX, 15, pp. 462-481.Notes:
*Suppose I mistake a bin bag for a cat on a murky summer morning and up pops a T token in my head. CCT implies that the bin-bag property instance stands in a meaning-constitutive relation to T. Thus T cannot have meant cat and instead seems to represent some queer disjunctive property cat or bin-bag since instances of either suffice to make the relevant neural state or mentalese sentence light up.
Quentin Meillassoux’s coinage ‘correlationism’ refers to any position which holds that thought can only think the relation between thought and its object; never the object as an absolute without relation to cognition. Kantianism and transcendental phenomenology are correlationisms. They conceive objectivity as an invariant structure of possible experience. Husserl conceives physical objectivity in terms of a subjective synthesis of experiences and anticipations which never give the thing in its totality. So for Husserl, there could no thought which lacked this temporal structure, just as there could be no thing that was not a correlated with it.
Graham Harman has recently cited Daniel Dennett’s patternist position (Dennett 1991) as well as Ladyman and Ross’ (L&R) ‘Rainforest Realism’ as examples of correlationism.
Here’s Graham from his discussion of Everything Must Go:
The sense in which real patterns are “real” is extremely weak in the book (as in Dennett’s article “Real Patterns” where the term seems to have been coined). They are real only because they are the most efficient descriptions, such that neither finer-grained nor coarser-grained descriptions of the same phenomenon allow us as much generalizing power. They are real only in comparison with false patterns that can be eliminated in the authors’ opinion (of which sensory qualia is the only unadulterated example given in the book).
And this is, I am sorry to say, a clearly correlationist position. These intermediate objects of the special sciences exist only for humans and animals who encounter them. The book holds that a mountain cannot even be said to be composed of smaller rocks, nor can patterns be linked to their causal ancestors either.
There are, arguably, problems with the patternist position. For example, I’m not convinced that it can deal with singularity or novelty or the reality of ‘noise’. There are also cases – e.g. in cognitive science – where functional decomposition may have more eliminativist implications than Dennett or L&R allow. Be this as it may, I don’t think correlationism is one of the liabilities of patternism. Or rather if Dennett’s position is ‘correlationist for the reason that Harman gives, then Harman’s position is just as correlationist as Dennett’s and for the same reasons. If so, we better start being more nuanced in our metaphysical invective.
According to Dennett and L&R a pattern exists ‘is real’ if the compression algorithm required to encode it requires a smaller number of bits than ‘bit string’ representation of the entire data set in which the pattern resides (Dennett 1991, 34).
Both Dennett and L&R argue that compressibility is a non-observer dependent property of patterns - roughly a measure of the computational resources required to produce an encoding of the pattern (Ladyman and Ross, 202). An encoding can be thought of a as a string of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers (bits) formally isomorphic to the pattern itself (Collier 1999, 6).
The correlationist claims that any object of thought is constituted by a noetic relation to a possible thinker. For example, for Husserl the physical thing is the unity for consciousness of an open-ended multiplicity of perspectives (Husserl 1970, 64; Roden 2006, 81). To think of a physical object just is – according to Husserl – to think of this unity for a subject (See also Brassier 2010).
However, the mapping from pattern to string is not noetic but, as has been stated, purely formal; requiring only a one-one mapping from pattern to encoding string.
Such mappings or equivalences must also obtain within Harman’s universe. For example, let’s suppose there are Harmanesque withdrawn objects – call them ‘Harms’.
If there are Harms we can know one thing about them: they are discrete and unified. We know this ex hypothesi because Harman says they are:
[The] reason we can’t make direct but partial contact with objects is that objects are essentially unified, and if you make contact with the parts of the unity then it’s not a contact with the unity itself.
If there are discrete Harms formal mappings of just the kind that obtain between encoding strings and patterns will abound in the Harmiverse. For example, if there are countably many Harms there is a one-to-one mapping from the natural numbers onto all Harms. If there are uncountably many Harms – if the cardinality of the set of Harms is greater than that of the natural or rational numbers - then there is no such mapping. There are also one-to-one mappings between discrete Harms.
In conclusion, the formal relations between a pattern and its encoding string are of the same kind as must obtain between Harms – assuming that there are such. So if a mapping from pattern to bit string is noetic enough to be a ‘correlation’ in Meillassoux’s sense, so must any instance of Harm-Harm mapping. If Dennett is a correlationist, so is Harman.
Brassier, Ray (2010) ‘Concepts and Objects’, in Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (eds) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (Melbourne: Re.press), pp. 47-65.
Collier, John (1999). ‘Causation is the Transfer of Information’, in Howard Sankey (ed) Causation, Natural Laws and Explanation (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1999)
Husserl, E (1970), The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press).
Ladyman James, Ross Don, (2007), Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Meillassoux, Q. (2006) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Ray Brassier (trans.). New York: Continuum.
Roden, D. (2006). Naturalising deconstruction, Continental Philosophy Review 38(1-2): 71-88.
I was irritated to see the inclusion of Isabelle Stengers’ lazy diatribe against Daniel Dennett’s so-called eliminativism in the essays of The Speculative Turn. Here’s an indicative quote from her piece:
The universal acid of the so-called dangerous idea of Darwin is just what is needed. It brings no effective understanding of evolutionary processes but is eliminating, dissolving away, all reasons to resist the redefinition of humans as a piece of engineering that can be understood in terms of algorithms, and modified at will. And those who struggle against this operative redefinition of our worlds will have against them the authority of reason and science.
Dennett’s ‘interpretationism’ holds that the explanation and predictions of behaviour must assume the rationality and cognisance of the agent under interpretation. When we view an agent in this way, we assume what Dennett refers to as the ‘intentional stance’. For Dennett (as for Donald Davidson) a behavioural episode is indicative of intentionality only where – applying the principle of ‘charity’ – it can also be construed as appropriate or rational relative to the agent’s environment. This implies both semantic holism and content holism: the indivisibility of the intentional sphere, rather than a redefinition of ‘humans as a piece of engineering’. Dennett’s position in the philosophy cognitive science is naturalistic insofar as it seeks to understand the computational mechanisms which make us apt subjects for intentional interpretation. However, it is ontologically pluralist insofar as it accommodates multiple equally real grains of reality, each accessible to different ‘stances’. So for Dennett the design stance, which opens up sub-personal processes and agents in the mind to functional analysis does not disclose patterns that are more real than those opened up by the personal level intentional stance (The title of his essay ‘Real Patterns‘ might have given Stengers pause). How is this eliminativist? Again, Dennett has consistently argued for the role of culture and narration in structuring agency and consciousness. I could go on but I’ve better things to do.