David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: john searle

Brian Barry on Robert Nozick

Here’s something less controversial, courtesy of John Protevi and Lawyers Guns and Money: Brian Barry’s amusing review of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, from 1975.

According to the jacket of the book, “Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia is an eagerly awaited book, widely discussed among philosophers long before its publication.” Sound familiar? Yes, but this product of the Harvard Philosophy Department has the added ingredient: outrageousness. “For,” the blurb continues, “it is nothing less than a powerful, philosophical challenge to the most widely held political and social positions of our age-liberal, socialist and conservative.” I have no idea how true the first claim is but the second seems to me demonstrably false. The book’s conclusions are not in the least unusual. They articulate the prejudices of the average owner of a filling station in a small town in the Midwest who enjoys grousing about paying taxes and having to contribute to “welfare scroungers” and who regards as wicked any attempts to interfere with contracts, in the interests, for example, of equal opportunity or anti-discrimination. There will be nothing unfamiliar in the conclusions of the book to those who have read their William F. Buckley or their Senator Goldwater or have ever paid attention to the output of the more or less batty crusades and campaigns financed by wealthy Texans and Californians. The only thing that is new is that these views are being expressed by someone who is a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard.

Finally the intellectual texture is of a sort of cuteness that would be wearing in a graduate student and seems to me quite indecent in someone who, from the lofty heights of a professorial chair, is proposing to starve or humiliate ten percent or so of his fellow citizens (if he recognizes the word) by eliminating all transfer payments through the state, leaving the sick, the old, the disabled, the mothers with young children and no breadwinner, and so on, to the tender mercies of private charity, given at the whim and pleasure of the donors and on any terms that they choose to impose. This is, no doubt, an emotional response, but there are, I believe, occasions when an emotional response is the only intellectually honest one. The concept of a “free fire zone,” for example, could appropriately be the subject of black comedy or bitter invective but not dispassionate analysis. Similarly, a book whose argument would entail the repeal of even the Elizabethan Poor Law must either be regarded as a huge joke or as a case of trahison des clercs, giving spurious intellectual respectability to the reactionary backlash that is already visible in other ways in the United States. My own personal inclination would be to treat the book as a joke, but since it is only too clear that others are prepared to take It seriously, I shall do so as well…..

Nozick’s vision of “utopia” as a situation in which the advantaged reinforce their advantages by moving into independent jurisdictions, leaving the poor and disadvantaged to fend for themselves, could be regarded as the work of a master satirist, since it is in fact merely the logical extension of pathologically divisive processes already well-established in the United States: the flight of the middle classes to the suburbs while the inner city decays from lack of resources, and the growth of “planned communities” for the wealthy aged and other specially selected groups who are able to shed much of the usual social overhead. Unfortunately, there is no sign that Nozick, jokiness personified in other respects, sees this particular joke, but, thanks to the direction given to public policy by Nixon and Ford and their Supreme Court, the American people have an increasing opportunity to enjoy the joke personally.

For all the contemporary echoes, what I find interesting is the particular rhetoric of the time. The caricature of the gas station owner doesn’t seem like anything that anyone would use today (not even Thomas Frank), nor the particular vision of aspects of the social fabric (middle classes fleeing to the suburbs, planned communities for the elderly, etc.). It’s an unapologetically elitist liberalism that really doesn’t exist any longer. I have no nostalgia for it (it’s exactly this sort of attitude that produces bad books like American Pastoral), but it certainly bears examination as to why it ceased to exist: simple explanations like “the 60s” or “the Great Society” or “the end of the Cold War” don’t really cut it. John Searle evokes some of the mystery in an interview he did with libertarian-mag Reason, in the context of discussing his affection for Hayek:

It seems to me that we don’t have what I would call a political philosophy from the middle distance. Let me give you an example. It seems to me the leading sociopolitical event of the 20th century was the failure of socialism. Now that’s an amazing phenomenon if you think about it, because in the middle years of this century, clever people thought there was no way capitalism could survive. When I was an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1950s, the conventional wisdom was that capitalism, because it is so inefficient and so stupid, because there’s not a controlling intelligence behind it, cannot in the long run compete with an intelligently planned economy.

It’s hard today to recover how widely that view was held among serious intellectuals. Very intelligent people thought that in the long run capitalism was doomed, and some kind of socialism was our future. Some people thought it was Marxist socialism, and other people thought we were going to have democratic socialism, but somehow or another it had to be socialism.

Where is it today? It’s dead. Even the European socialist parties, though they still keep the names, are adopting various versions of capitalist welfare states. I would like an intelligent analysis of this, and I can’t find it.

Why did that belief die so spectacularly? I’m not convinced that we even have the apparatus necessary to pose an answer to the question. I think we need a conceptual improvement, and it would be piecemeal. It would be like the additions that Max Weber made when he introduced notions like rationalization, charisma, and all the rest of it.

John Searle in interview

I’d like that too. You have it buried in people like Badiou, but stuff like Hardt/Negri books is pretty weak tea in comparison to what I take to be the gestalt in the period Searle is talking about. You can debate who is and who isn’t a “serious intellectual,” but I think it’s undeniable that the remaining “socialist” faction is very, very marginalized today.

Strawson on Consciousness

For those of us like me who can’t help wondering about the physical reality of subjective mental events, here’s a passage from the ever-excellent Galen Strawson, from a review of Antonio Damasio:

The standard formulation of the “mind-body problem” rests on a huge and wholly unjustified assumption (this assumption, in fact, is Descartes’s deepest error). It is not content with the obvious truth that matter and consciousness seem to us to be utterly heterogeneous things. It slides on to the claim that matter and consciousness are in fact utterly heterogeneous things, in such a way that it is mysterious how one could ever be the basis or “realization” of the other. It shifts from a harmless and true epistemological claim about how things seem to us to a mega-therial metaphysical claim about how things are in reality.Why? Why indeed? The root cause of the mistake is the unsupported assumption that current physics – or indeed ordinary experience, in its own modest but compelling way – gives us a pretty good fix on the fundamental nature of matter, and shows it to be utterly qualitatively unlike consciousness. It is only relative to this assumption that the existence of consciousness in a material world seems in any way mystifying, for there is nothing particularly puzzling about consciousness as it is in itself. We know just what it is like – or at least what certain forms of it are like. Consider an experience of blue or of giddiness. Consider it as it is in itself. You know what it is. So, if our best picture of matter makes it seem incomprehensible that matter should be the basis of (or simply be) conscious experience, all this shows is the inadequacy of our best picture of matter. Locke, Hume, Priestley, Kant and others were very clear about this, but few understand it today. Many now make Descartes’s deepest error, in fact, with far less justification than him – while condemning him for his errors.

It is not in any way anti-scientific to claim that we do not have a good fix on the fundamental nature of matter. Current physics instructs us daily in how foolish it is to assume that we do (while providing a magnificent theoretical framework in which to express and exploit a great deal of information about the behaviour of matter). It is widely agreed that the current “Standard Model” is unsatisfactory; the old quarrel between relativity theory and quantum mechanics remains unresolved; there is turmoil in general cosmology; and String Theory, after the “second superstring revolution”, is again pressing obscurely at the door.

The first problem of consciousness, then, the mind-body problem or qualia problem, is just a vivid proof of our ignorance of the nature of matter, and of the difficulty – seeming impossibility – of reconciling first-personal and impersonal data. There is no metaphysical mind-body problem, only an epistemological one.

I like this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the conclusion, which takes the most appealing aspects of several consciousness theories–Colin McGinn’s “new mysterianism” (that we are not set up to understand consciousness and never will), Gerald Edelman’s neurological theories (correlates exist, but only go so far in dealing with the problem), David Chalmers’ panpsychism (consciousness as a different kind of property), and John Searle’s anti-functionalism (consciousness as a material-specific property)–while avoiding many of their glaring defects and leaps of faith. Tossing out the metaphysical problem by dismissing it as based on faulty assumptions, and thereby dismissing all linguistic constructions thereof (so long to Kripke’s proof of dualism, e.g.), he leaves open an unbounded epistemological space that is on first glace far more counterintuitive, since it’s far easier to believe that mental and physical events are heterogeneous than homogeneous. And yet to envision an answer that encompasses a homogeneity of the physical and the mental without denying qualia or intuitions of “folk psychology,” intuitions which Daniel Dennett and the Churchlands have hardly managed to tear down successfully, is quite inspiring. For the anti-qualia gang have had the burden of denying the experience of qualia as well as qualia themselves, and thus the experience of the experience of qualia, etc., etc., and this infinite regress does not go down so easily.

Strawson’s approach reminds me of Stanislaw Lem in Golem XIV (read the entire text of Golem XIV), where his panopticon of a computer alludes to Wittgenstein’s unmooring of language while firmly binding an evolutionary etiology of such language:

If one who is thinking could perceive this horizon – his intellectual range – in the same way that he perceives the limits of his body, nothing like the antinomies of Intelligence could arise. And what in fact are those antinomies of Intelligence? They are the inability to distinguish between transcendence in fact and transcendence in illusion. The cause of these antinomies is language, for language, being a useful tool, is also a self-locking instrument – and at the same time a perfidious one, since it tells nothing about when it becomes a pitfall itself. It gives no indication! So you appeal from language to experience and enter well-known vicious circles, because then you get – what is familiar to philosophy – the throwing out of the baby with the bathwater. For thought may indeed transcend experience, but in such a flight it encounters a horizon of its own and gets trapped in it, though having no idea that this has happened!

Correspondence vs. Metaphysics


Brian Weatherson at Crooked Timber has a dissection of the latest latest battle between Rorty and the analytics. I’m neither schooled in nor particularly concerned with the vagueness part of things, but I do feel strongly about the Kripke-derived school of essentialism and metaphysics, and Rorty’s original review uses vagueness as more of a arbitrarily chosen example than as a special case. I’m not certain why Rorty chose it, since the study of what is and is not a “heap” isn’t as bewildering to common sense as certain other thought experiments, such as this one:

Consider the following version of the PMC taken from the writings of the Stoic Chrysippus. A man named Dion undergoes the amputation of his left-foot. Assuming that he is identical to his body, we may then ask: what is the relationship between Dion, the amputee, whom we shall call &#x93Leon,&#x94 and &#x93Theon,&#x94 the erstwhile aggregate of all of Dion&#x92s body parts minus his left foot? Shall we say that it is Dion who is (has become) the amputee Leon, Theon having perished? Or is it Theon to whom Leon is identical, Dion having perished? A third option is that both survive the operation as the amputee. I believe that the third answer is the correct one.

Regardless of the greater implications that such study has on realism and philosophy of language, Brian points out that many of his colleagues have no interest in the larger issue. It seems undeniable to me that the issue is one of territory.

Some of the correspondents mention that Kripkean essentialism is a way to recover ground lost when Wittgenstein and then Quine attacked language correspondence, empiricism, and the analytic/synthetic distinction. This also seems undeniable in effect if not in intent. David Armstrong once said that he thought that in comparing early Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell (he had no interest in later Wittgenstein), he thought that Wittgenstein had gone in the wrong direction in emphasizing correspondence; Russell was the one who had it right metaphysically. My own biases prevent me from understanding this position; I stand by Wittgenstein’s critique of Russell’s weak correspondence theory. But it’s clear that Armstrong, and most likely many others, are concerned enough with what happens past correspondence that the issue itself is not especially important to them. Or, as Soames says of vagueness (among other things) in his response:

This enterprise is one of several in which analytic philosophers are forging ahead by replacing Rorty&#x92s metaphorical question — Are the sentences we use to describe the world maps of an independent reality?
— with more specific, nonmetaphorical questions on which real
progress can be made.


But what is the definition of “real progress”? There’s no question that metaphysics has once again blossomed since Kripke, but aside from outliers like Davidson and Cavell, modern analytic work has had very little disciplinary overlap with other fields. As far as I can tell it has no interaction with its continental bete noir, nor much with literature these days.

One large area of overlap, however, is in the philosophy of mind, as neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, computer scientists in artificial intelligence, and philosophers engage in long turf wars that often appear as though they’re talking past each other. Baumgartner and Payr’s Speaking Minds incisively portrays the dialogue of the deaf by giving each person their own chapter and letting the differences emerge. I disagree with the review at the above link when Cooper says:

Is it really necessary, for example, to include each interviewee’s description of the Turing test? Surely a singly quote from the original source (which is in any case included in a very useful glossary) would be sufficient.

I would argue that indeed it is, since the definitions vary! Daniel Dennett, Hilary Putnam, Joseph Weizenbaum, George Lakoff, Hubert Dreyfus, and John Searle all proceed from such wildly varying starting points that they hear the questions about building/simulating minds differently and respond in kind. The computer scientists and the neurologists have lower-level problems to solve and don’t want to be bothered with the hard stuff. Putnam and Dreyfus have bigger epistemological problems to solve before this piddling stuff. Dennett wants to define most of these problems of mind out of existence. Even where there appears to be overlap, then, it is commonly incidental.

Yet there has been real overlap between philosophy and cognitive science in ontology. Metaphysical ontological work has been very significant in the development of knowledge representation structures used in, for example, the CYC project, which has been building a large, general purpose repository of object relations and the like for over a decade. Brilliant people like John F. Sowa have worked tirelessly on such projects of ontological knowledge representation, and still I admit I’m skeptical that such rigorous semantics will yield as good results even as search engines do today. See Peter Norvig’s speech on this topic.


Yet clearly the ontologies have produced research with practical application; yet Sowa and others seem to owe more to Russell and Peirce than they do to the current batch of researchers. This is not to say that vagueness could not be used in knowledge representation ontologies; I’m saying that much of the progress being made no longer appears to link back clearly to “specific, nonmetaphorical applications”–rather, certain particular philosophical questions (free will, the mind-body problem, identity over time, “grue”-ness) appear to be spawning out further work at a rate that does not seem to allow for the cohesion that Soames believes there to be. That these questions seem to be based on a set of shared assumptions quite particular to their field gives me reason to pause.

There is always, however, room for epistemology; it undercuts other fields in a way that metaphysics can’t. This won’t make a case for people studying it, but the realms that were explored by Peirce and Russell seem to have been picked up as much by Godel (in the area of math and logic) as any modern analytic. But the epistemological questions have remained squarely untouched.

Personal, if I didn’t believe that language-reality correspondence was inherently paradoxical, and that it was the fundamental basis for so many other areas of study–sociology, psychology, literature, law, organizational structure–I don’t know what other problem would take the place of the huge void it would leave in my head.

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