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.
Bakker, Scott. 2014. The Blind Mechanic II: Reza Negarestani and the Labor of Ghosts | Three Pound Brain. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/the-blind-mechanic-ii-reza-negarestani-and-the-labour-of-ghosts
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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).
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.