Correlationist Spawn



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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)

  1. The behaviour of radical aliens is not interpretable as actions.
  2. Radical aliens are agents.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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”, 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.



8 thoughts on “Correlationist Spawn

  1. Reminded me of scholars for 80 years or more have puzzled over Linear A Minoan script without success as if it were an alien language left by some advanced off-world culture, etc. Whereas Linear B was discovered to have a key that enabled scholars to decipher its script into meaning.

    I remember the one Star Trek show with DATA who had a store of hundreds of thousands of extant languages coming upon a species so alien that there was nothing to be done, no way to bridge the gap in meaning and understanding… and, in the end it came down to mime and gesture: the oldest forms of enactment, of enacting the meaning through playing it out in dance, movement, and gesture which eventually solved the riddle and allowed DATA to decipher the meaning of image and sound, rhythm and syntax, sign and movement.

  2. Reminded me of scholars for 80 years or more have puzzled over Linear A Minoan script without success as if it were an alien language left by some advanced off-world culture, etc. Whereas Linear B was discovered to have a key that enabled scholars to decipher its script into meaning.

    I remember the one Star Trek show with DATA who had a store of hundreds of thousands of extant languages coming upon a species so alien that there was nothing to be done, no way to bridge the gap in meaning and understanding… and, in the end it came down to mime and gesture: the oldest forms of enactment, of enacting the meaning through playing it out in dance, movement, and gesture which eventually solved the riddle and allowed DATA to decipher the meaning of image and sound, rhythm and syntax, sign and movement.

    One thinks of Native Americans across the continent who unable to bridge linguistic barriers developed sign language to allow for universal language and trade.

  3. I suppose in the case Linear A one could argue that we’re in a non-ideal situation – not enough data for the radical interpreters to construct a semantics. That wouldn’t worry Davidson. But maybe there could agents for which we could never be in position of idealised interpreters.

  4. Just finished the submission draft and was overjoyed to find this pingback! Philosophy has to become post-intentional to tackle these issues. The real question, at this point I think, is precisely the question between the two of us, the question of how far one needs to go. From my standpoint, we have to go all the way simply because no one has ever gone there before!

    BTT has normativists/interpretivists in an empirical vice, I think. They need to explain why the heuristic modes of cognition they employ–modes evolved to neglect what’s going on–could possibly tell us what’s going on… before they begin on the conditions of some overdetermined X. No matter how they argue, it remains an empirical question as whether they are engaging in wholesale heuristic misapplication.

    And almost terrifyingly apropos:

    This was generated via a recurrent neural network… on a lark. A program learned how to mimic Shakespeare given a few hours alone with his corpus.

    The thing to note is the obligatory nature of the illusions this generates–cognitive illusions on a par with visual illusions. This is the crazy moral rising out of HCI research: simply how easy it is to trigger and systematically misapply intentional modes of cognition. No matter what alien system we encountered, it would, given a sufficient degree of complexity, trigger intentional cognitive modes no matter what their applicability. When everything becomes Solaris, then Solaris becomes a lot less interesting.

    And when you give up on agency, you can begin to see these kinds of ‘contact’ questions as the question of two systems comprising a superordinate third (Kelvin/Solaris).

  5. “This is the crazy moral rising out of HCI research: simply how easy it is to trigger and systematically misapply intentional modes of cognition. No matter what alien system we encountered, it would, given a sufficient degree of complexity, trigger intentional cognitive modes no matter what their applicability. When everything becomes Solaris, then Solaris becomes a lot less interesting.”

    Hi Scott. I suppose everything isn’t Solaris just yet, but I take your point . I don’t assume that the speculative idea agent is conceptually articulated in an interesting way, beyond it’s presuppositional role. It’s just a surd, an expression of coping strategies that may have a briefer shelf-life than we imagine.

    Stoked that you’re publishing on JCS. Will really need to blog that article at some point and just get it around. It’s time BBT insinuated itself into what passes for mainstream philosophy (though my grip on this seems increasingly tenuous) 😉

  6. I’m stoked too! For the obvious reasons, but also because they accepted the paper despite their moratorium on philosophy articles. My empirical case has felt like it’s been getting stronger all the time–and I take this as confirmation that yes, I have won the Magical Belief Lottery! Woo-hoo! 😉

    The Solaris point is actually that we have always been there: the ‘radically alien,’ when properly understood is everywhere (and therefore nowhere). When pretty much anything possessing sufficient complexity is interpretable as rational action (triggers intentional cognitive modes), and you give up on the notion of any rational essentialism, then PRA simply dissolves. Lem’s Solaris becomes a natural system prone to signal missapplication on this way of looking at things–to occasion an *explicit* crash space. The same thing happens with Siri all the time, albeit in radically different contexts. We write it off as a dumb machine, an engineering challenge, etc., because we have these second order protocols in place. With Solaris we seem to have second order recourse, but these consistently fail, and mysticism becomes that much more tempting. Rather than seeing the breakdown pertaining to the limits of our ancestral shorthand, limits that exist no matter how complex or simple the target, we transform it (using the same faulty shorthand) into a property belonging to the alien, that of being radically alien, rather than merely insoluble given present resources. Kris and Solaris can be analogized to logging into the modern web using a Commodore 64! And the thaumazein accompanying ‘the limits of connectivity’ can be attributed to our ignorance regarding the nature of our clunky old connection protocols.

  7. “The combined shock of the revelation and of the abrupt command gave me a kind of paralysis, and in my terror my mind again opened to the impressions coming from what Tillinghast called “beyond”. I was now in a vortex of sound and motion, with confused pictures before my eyes. I saw the blurred outlines of the room, but from some point in space there seemed to be pouring a seething column of unrecognisable shapes or clouds, penetrating the solid roof at a point ahead and to the right of me. Then I glimpsed the temple-like effect again, but this time the pillars reached up into an aërial ocean of light, which sent down one blinding beam along the path of the cloudy column I had seen before. After that the scene was almost wholly kaleidoscopic, and in the jumble of sights, sounds, and unidentified sense-impressions I felt that I was about to dissolve or in some way lose the solid form. One definite flash I shall always remember. I seemed for an instant to behold a patch of strange night sky filled with shining, revolving spheres, and as it receded I saw that the glowing suns formed a constellation or galaxy of settled shape; this shape being the distorted face of Crawford Tillinghast. At another time I felt the huge animate things brushing past me and occasionally walking or drifting through my supposedly solid body, and thought I saw Tillinghast look at them as though his better trained senses could catch them visually. I recalled what he had said of the pineal gland, and wondered what he saw with this preternatural eye.
    Suddenly I myself became possessed of a kind of augmented sight. Over and above the luminous and shadowy chaos arose a picture which, though vague, held the elements of consistency and permanence. It was indeed somewhat familiar, for the unusual part was superimposed upon the usual terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre. I saw the attic laboratory, the electrical machine, and the unsightly form of Tillinghast opposite me; but of all the space unoccupied by familiar material objects not one particle was vacant. Indescribable shapes both alive and otherwise were mixed in disgusting disarray, and close to every known thing were whole worlds of alien, unknown entities. It likewise seemed that all the known things entered into the composition of other unknown things, and vice versa. Foremost among the living objects were great inky, jellyish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony with the vibrations from the machine. They were present in loathsome profusion, and I saw to my horror that they overlapped; that they were semi-fluid and capable of passing through one another and through what we know as solids. These things were never still, but seemed ever floating about with some malignant purpose. Sometimes they appeared to devour one another, the attacker launching itself at its victim and instantaneously obliterating the latter from sight. Shudderingly I felt that I knew what had obliterated the unfortunate servants, and could not exclude the things from my mind as I strove to observe other properties of the newly visible world that lies unseen around us. But Tillinghast had been watching me, and was speaking.
    “You see them? You see them? You see the things that float and flop about you and through you every moment of your life? You see the creatures that form what men call the pure air and the blue sky? Have I not succeeded in breaking down the barrier; have I not shewn you worlds that no other living men have seen?” I heard him scream through the horrible chaos, and looked at the wild face thrust so offensively close to mine. His eyes were pits of flame, and they glared at me with what I now saw was overwhelming hatred. The machine droned detestably.”

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