5 thoughts on “After Nature Interview with Ray Brassier

  1. I caught this back in the summer.

    “It wasn’t until after its completion that I realized Sellars’ account of thought and meaning offered precisely what I needed. To think is to connect and disconnect concepts according to proprieties of inference. Meanings are rule-governed functions supervening on the pattern-conforming behaviour of language-using animals. This distinction between semantic rules and physical regularities is dialectical, not metaphysical.”

    This is what I mean about refusing to see Enlightenment logic through to the end. The fact is, we *don’t know* what the difference between ‘rules’ and ‘regularities’ are, or the difference between inference structures and computational interaction patterns. It’s hard not to see ‘dialectical’ as a tradition-conserving dodge here – a way to say, ‘hands off, science.’

    We can predict that saying as much won’t work. We can also predict that science, when it final does come to grips with ‘rules,’ will make sense of them in terms of causal regularities. We can *guess* that our ‘intuitive concept’ of rules is likely in for a rough ride.

    I can’t help but think that Brassier is simply going down the same road as Churchland and Dennett here, following the mechanistic logic of the life sciences through, only to pull up short at the end…

    But then my copy of Plato’s Camera only just arrived today!

  2. Hi Scott,

    I share your worries about the Sellarsian model. I’m not blind to its attractions in the area of philosophical semantics where it provides an intelligible account of the relationship between linguistic meaning and practice, or “use”. If “meaning is use” has philosophical substance, then use has to be something, and inferential commitments and entitlements seem plausible candidates. The model also seems to capture something important about what language adds to animal cognition – a tool for representing, disseminating and refining cognitive habits.

    Problems: 1) I suspect Sellarsian-Brandomian normative functionalism entails an untenable theoretical dualism of normative scheme and behavioural content. So we may agree that human reasoning and thinking conforms to patterns but disagree about how that conformity is generated or is most perspicuously understood.

    Many material inferences presuppose a grasp of what is relevant to that inference. But there may (for all we know) be no rules that specify relevance in way that could generate to the kind of skillful, adaptive behaviour that humans (or nonhumans for that matter) regularly exhibit. Thus humans may converge on what is relevant, interesting or good in the way of belief because they are cognitively and biologically similar beings operating in shared environments, not because there is some abstract pattern by which they are governed.

    2) From what I see, the Sellars-Brandom model cannot supply an explanatorily useful account of the personal subpersonal distinction. If I get them right, there is inference and representation only at the personal level, where for “person” read “language-using animal”. That means we cannot “seriously” ascribe content to parts of persons like the ventral stream or the cortical networks involves in face recognition. That’s OK if we think that a science of cognition can get by without a serious account of subpersonal content, but that seems implausible.

    3) By the same token it cannot provide a serious account of animal cognition, as far as I can see. The allocation to mere reliable dispositions to differentially respond (RDDR’s) to non-humans and inference to humans who play the game of “giving and asking for reasons” seems a hopeless basis for understanding cognition in nonhumans.

    And yes, the point about dialectics seems fit ill with the claim about supervenience. Supervenience is a metaphysical dependence relation, not a dialectical one! Well dodgy.



  3. I’m not sure the personal/subpersonal issue (2) need trouble them, if they take ‘content’ in the Dennettian sense. The subpersonal, as Dennett likes to chastise psychologists, is no place (read: ‘wrong level’) for the ‘person stance.’ But I would certainly be interested in reading any critiques along this line.

    (1) is the one where I’m hung up – and I actually think the problem is as metatheoretical as anything. I just find the kinds of moves they (and pragmatists more generally) make to be suspiciously convenient from the standpoint of the ‘game of giving and asking for reasons.’ With Brandom, for instance, it really doesn’t seem to matter what all the deontic scorekeepers think, even though that’s supposed to be the only thing that matters! And they really do have no credible way of accounting for objectivity. At least Rorty was willing to bite all the hard bullets!

    Another related problem turns on Theoretical Incompetence more generally. Systems this semantically rubbery only seem to answer to facts after they have been inferentially predigested. No matter how radically deceptive the ‘manifest image’ turns out to be, it can always be interpretatively salvaged according to ‘usefulness.’ So, given our genius for gaming ambiguities, these approaches almost seem designed to be ‘irrefutable’ as opposed to ‘right.’ A ‘game of giving and asking for reasons’ that never need answer to scientific discoveries is pretty obviously rigged.

    (3) I’ve never considered (I’d be interested in some reading here as well), though superficially, it strikes me as an extension of (1).

    Have you ever had a chance to press Ray on any of these problems?

    1. Dennett’s committed to homuncularism, which entails applying the intentional stance to parts of people – or to cats, hell, to thermostats: “The intentional stance is the strategy of interpreting the behavior of an entity (person, animal, artifact, whatever) by treating it as if it were a rational agent who governed its ‘choice’ of ‘action’ by a ‘consideration’ of its ‘beliefs’ and ‘desires.’” This permits the application of the intentional stance to subpersonal intentional systems. The issue with most commentators on Dennett is unpacking the ontological commitments here. Dennett denies that his approach is instrumentalist, claiming that the intentional stance picks up on patterns in behaviour that have an independent reality.

      One problem here is that, intuitively, we want a notion of content that will support causal explanations of behaviour. But the only kind of content that seems liable to support such explanations is narrow content. The kind of content we attribute from the intentional stance is wide: it depends on the environment of the intentional system.

      Since intentional interpretation is a species of radical interpretation we jury rig it to preserve charity. What is believed/desired by an agent depends on how belief/desire attributions cohere with assuming the overall rationality and competence of the agent. So there is no belief state that is not compatible with some action so long as we are prepared to adjust ascriptions of the other beliefs and desires in line with charity. Causally explaining behaviour seems at minimum to require that we could make hypotheses about what an agent is likely to do that could be falsified: If X has content C in its belief box, then (all things being equal) X will do A. But it always seems possible to construe X’s beliefs/desires such that X believed C but, quite sensibly, did not do A.

      So it’s likely that the kind of full fledged, wide intentional content that the IS ascribes is just the wrong kind of content for the causal explanation of behaviour (Dennett doesn’t disagree with this assumption, of course, since he regards the claims made in the IS as as normative).

      Brandom adopts a Kantian approach to objectivity. The concept of an object is unpacked in terms of the role of singular terms in discourse, rather than vice versa (defining singular terms as the parts of language that refer to objects as opposed to properties, classes or relations or whatever).

      As I indicated, I see the problem with animal cognition as a manifestation of the inferentialists’ problem with subpersonal content. I don’t think we get a useful concept of inferential process if we restrict the class of inferrers to beings equipped with the vocabulary to evaluate inferences. Making an inference and evaluating one are different.

  4. The ‘scope of applicability’ question is something that plagues Dennett’s notion of stances as a whole, as far as I’m concerned–almost as fatal as his insistence on characterizatizing them as ‘stances,’ in intentional terms. Once you start thinking in terms of heuristics – the intentional heuristic, the person heuristic, the object heuristic, etc. – not only can you ask the question of what the actual mechanisms are, but you have enough traction to genuinely assess ‘scope of applicability’ issues, simply because heuristics, by definition, leverage *informatic neglect* to generate problem-solving efficiencies vis a vis specific problem sets. By comparing the information neglected to the kind of information sought, ‘scope violations’ sometimes leap out at you. (This is the way Blind Brain Theory resolves the problem of qualia, for instance).

    Your point regarding Dennett is well taken, though. The fact that I don’t ever have to teach or be tested on my reading means my sense of these issues is often too impressionistic. But granting Dennett’s homuncularism, why do I have the sense he wants to have it both ways? He’s certainly quick to chastise others for what he perceives as ‘stance violations.’

    Otherwise I would argue that *any* account of content is inevitably going to gum up causal explanations of behaviour. The more I work out the details of Blind Brain Theory, the more convinced I become that the ‘linguistic turn’ has been the most disastrous philosophical turn yet (one that convinced us to retreat from one parochial family of heuristics to another even more parochial family – hillbilly philosophy)! It maintains that human cognition is, as Churchland maintains, simply a twist on animal cognition – but unlike Churchland (I would argue anyway), it provides a principled way of explaining away all those elements that make it seem oh-so special.

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