Coronavirus, Intellectual Disability and Language

The Limits of my Language are the Limits of my world”  Ludwig Wittgenstein. 

In a recent interview with Joe Rogan engineer Elon Musk speculated that within three years his neural nets will have rendered language obsolete as a mode of communication. Whatever the prospects of Musk’s wildly speculative views on the future of language as a mode of communication; at the present time language is a vital tool in coordinating our behaviour. In this blog-post I will discuss some of the challenges that face non-verbal people with intellectual disabilities, who are in full time care during the Covid-19 lockdown. My reflections will be to some degree region specific as I will be speaking about lockdown as it was implemented in Ireland. Obviously, however, the difficulties I speak of are ones that universally apply to the problem of maintaining social isolation for people who have extremely limited understanding of the reasons for the isolation. 

Language is a wonderous tool that enables us to achieve magical things. Using words we can refer to objects which are millions of miles away from us (the Sun), we can refer to objects that existed millions of years in the past (a T-Rex) and we can refer to non-existent objects (a Unicorn). Furthermore we can refer to unimaginably large objects (the Andromeda Galaxy), and unimaginably small objects ( a Quark). We can combine our words using grammatical rules that give us the ability to say an unlimited amount of things true or false about the objects we are referring to. We use language not only to speak about our shared world but to discuss possible worlds with various different properties. Not only do we use words to refer to objects in the external world but we also use words to refer to our own internal states. My headache or toothache may not be visible to you but if we speak the same language I can tell you I have a headache or a toothache. 

There are many different people who to varying different degrees lack the linguistic competence we take for granted. There are a dazzling array of different ways people can have difficulties with language. Some people can form sounds and repeat a few words they have heard but lack the capacity to attach concepts to the sounds they can form. Others can use a few words to refer to things in their environment but lack the grammatical capacity to combine words into sentences. Such people can say ‘Ball’ but cannot say ‘I want the Ball’, ‘Isn’t that a nice Ball’ etc. Some people can understand some language e.g. ‘Dinner time’, ‘Time for a Bus Drive’ etc, but are completely unable to produce any language of their own. 

Lacking the ability to use language doesn’t imply lacking the ability to think thoughts. Work in developmental psychology indicates that prior to learning language children have conceptual abilities about object permanence, agency, causation etc ( Carey 2006, Burge 2006, Spelke 1997). There are people who have never developed a language of their own who have thoughts and interests of their own. Nonetheless because such people lack a language their ability to communicate their needs is limited. 

Language and communication are not synonymous. It is possible to communicate one’s needs without being able to speak. Such communication typically involves establishing a joint frame of reference. A person can tell you they want something by pointing at it. Or if they lack the ability to use pointing as a tool they can bring you to the object they want. They can communicate that they don’t want food by handing it back. A person can indicate that they are happy by smiling and sad by frowning. 

But even a simple tool such as pointing isn’t a universal gesture. Few non-human animals can understand pointing at all. And while some non human primates can be trained to point their understanding of the pointing gesture is limited.  Typically developing children begin using pointing at the age of 1. Infants typically use pointing for three different purposes, (1) to request help, (2) to offer information, and (3) to express an attitude (excitement, fear)etc. (Tomasello 2019 p. 98). So when a non verbal person uses pointing to communicate, it takes more than just interpreting the pointing; it involves interpreting facial expressions and behavioural cues to understand the meaning of the pointing gesture. Furthermore, some people with developmental disorders such as autism will have trouble in using and understanding pointing. So they may only be able to tell you they want something by bringing you towards the object they desire. 

Having the ability to understand and use concepts and having preferred activities you like to engage in but lacking the ability to communicate what you want can be frustrating at the best of times. In the case of non-verbal people with intellectual disabilities they rely on their families and carers to help facilitate their needs and ensure that they get to engage in the activities they enjoy. Providing care in this sense involves getting to know them very closely and detailing what they like so you can narrow the search space when trying to interpret what it is they are looking to do during the day. 

Today with the Coronavirus governments have lock-downs in place to try to slow the spread of the virus. The reasons they want to slow the spread is to try and ensure that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed by infected people; as such if the hospitals are overrun they won’t be able to provide sufficient care and more people will die than would have died otherwise. Another reason to try to slow the spread of the infection is that it gives scientists time to try and develop effective treatments for the virus; and possibly even develop a vaccine. 

Understanding why there is a lockdown requires the peculiar features of language we discussed above. Understanding a word like ‘Virus’ even at the most rudimentary level involves being able to refer to something very small and to understand its behaviour by describing its properties. The concept of a  ‘lockdown’, involves an understanding of abstract things like ‘the rule of law’. While an understanding of ‘Social Distancing’ requires an understanding of units of measurement such as distance you stand near a person without being infected, time you can spend near a person and how this effects the probability of being infected. While understanding the possible outcomes if we don’t adhere to social distancing involves either reference to far away in space such as other countries who haven’t implemented social distancing; or far away in time people in the past who didn’t follow social distancing (the 1918 flu). A lot of our thinking about the coronavirus and how we should react to it involves thinking about possible worlds; if we don’t do this we will live in world x but if we do that we will live in world y. 

For the non-verbal person with an intellectual disability they have been thrown into a world where everything is different. As we discussed above they can think about their world, be anxious, scarred about the changes they are going through. They can communicate their immediate needs but without language it is difficult to convey their more complex wants. 

Some effects of the lockdown here in Ireland are that Day Activation Centres are closed, Schools are closed and visiting care homes and community houses are not allowed. So a lot of non verbal people with intellectual disabilities who either live in a residential home or in community housing suddenly find themselves not going to work or school anymore. They find themselves having limited access to their community; they can no longer go to the places they like e.g. they can’t go for a coffee or a walk in the park or to visit friends. Most worryingly they cannot be visited by their family anymore. It is a frightening thing to suddenly be cut off from your family, your community and your daily activities without having any understanding of why. 

While explaining to a non-verbal person with intellectual disability why there is a lock down, or even what a lock down is; is probably a non-starter, there are some practical things that can be done. With technology we have the capacity to engage in live chats with friends and family with apps like zoom or WhatsApp. Even if the non-verbal person cannot engage with the chat aspect, seeing their friends and family and hearing their voices will provide some comfort for them. It hopefully will let them know that their family is still out there and still cares about them.. Another useful tool to implement would be the use of a visual schedule indicating what daily activities are being used. The visual schedule could be mapped out further to take in the weeks and plans could be made for future activities that will become available as the various different stages of the lockdown are lifted. Obviously though the degree to which the use of long term plans based on visual schedules can be work will depend on the cognitive abilities of each different person. Primarily though what is needed is to provide a rich environment in their residence so that they can still enjoy multiple activities so that at least their lives are still rich and enjoyable even while restrictions are in place.

Quine and Skinner and Unconscious Reasoning

“There is a startling irony in these discoveries about how the brain makes choices. It entirely vindicates a research program in experimental psychology that pretty much everyone thought was consigned to oblivion fifty years ago: behaviourism…But the behaviourists may yet have the last laugh because it turns out that the “whole-animal” conditioning they discovered and thought was enough to explain human and nonhuman animal behaviour really does explain it. But it does so only when it operates on the neural circuits of the brain. All of which appear to be built by classical or operant conditioning. Behaviourism is vindicated in the brain by a process roughly the same as the one Eric Kandel discovered builds synapses in the hippocampus” ( Alex Rosenberg ‘How History Gets Things Wrong’ p.  155)


 In this blog-post I will discuss Quine and Skinner’s attempt to understand reasoning and rule-following in terms of humans explicitly following the rules and being able to state them. Their explanation of reasons which flirts with eliminativism but doesn’t cross that line will be contrasted with Alex Rosenberg’s mad dog eliminativism. I will argue for the practical indispensability of folk psychology even though it probably doesn’t pick out a real feature that can be discovered in science. 

In cognitive science it is common to explain cognitive competencies in-terms of a plethora of rules that are represented in the brain. Thus in the early days of generative grammar it was argued that there were certain innate rules that governed how people constructed the sentences they spoke. It was argued that while we didn’t have conscious access to the grammatical structure underlying our sentences our brain was unconsciously following rules when we constructed them. Similar arguments were made about how the brain judged distance in perceptual acts. Now there is an ample literature in the philosophy of cognitive science explicating what is meant by the notion of ‘unconscious rules’; I won’t discuss this literature here as I have done so elsewhere (  ( ). Here I will discuss a criticism of the cognitive concept of rules made by two famous behaviourists; Quine and Skinner.

                                 Skinner on Rule Following

 B.F. Skinner distinguished between rules which we consciously understand and behaviour which is shaped by the contingencies of reinforcement. For Skinner we are following a rule if we can verbalize what the rule is and act accordingly. To illustrate this point he makes the odd comparison of a person who speaks correctly by  consciously applying the rules of grammar and the one who has learned to speak correctly by his verbal behaviour being shaped by the contingencies of reinforcement ( Contingencies of Reinforcement p. 125). In his 1974 book ‘About Behaviourism’ Skinner made a similar point. He noted that a normal human who is speaking grammatically is no more following an explicit model of the grammar he speaks than a dog catching a ball is explicitly following the relevant part of the science of mechanics before he catches the ball.  Skinner is not dogmatically demarcating all behaviour into two distinct camps; explicit rule governed behaviour and unconscious causal sequences shaped by the contingencies of reinforcement. He does acknowledge that there may be intermediate cases not neatly described by either scheme (About Behaviourism pp. 126-128). But Skinner does seem to think that the most natural way to speak about rule following is to speak about explicitly following the rule and being able to state the rule one is following.

                                               Quine on Rule-following

Quine discussed rules in the context of his critique of Chomsky’s views that our brain was restricted to following certain rules when constructing and interpreting our sentences. Chomsky had argued that there were underlying syntactic rules which governed all of the world’s languages.  In his 1972 paper ‘Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory’ Quine criticized Chomsky’s conception of a rule arguing that it was unnecessary. Quine argued that there was a simpler way of conceiving rules than the one Chomsky used:


“My distinction between fitting and guiding is, you see, the obvious and flat-footed one. Fitting is a matter of true description; guiding is a matter of cause and effect. Behaviour fits a rule whenever it conforms to it; whenever the rule truly describes the behaviour. But the behaviour is not guided by the rule unless the behaver knows the rule and can state it. This behaver observes the rule” (Quine: Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory’ p. 386).


I will not discuss the debate between Chomsky and Quine on this topic; as I have done so elsewhere ( ). Rather here I will just consider Quine’s conception of rules and explore its relation to Skinner’s views and the relevance of this conception for understanding the reason based explanations in general. 

Quine’s conception of a behaviour conforming to a rule even though the agent engaging in the behaviour isn’t explicitly following the rule, is similar to Skinner’s conception. Think of Skinner’s example of a dog catching a ball. We can explain the behaviour of the dog in a variety of different ways.  Thus an evolutionary scientist can explain the dog’s disposition to chase moving small things in terms of an instinct that had survival value in the dogs ancestors’ past. A behavioural scientist can explain the reinforcing contingencies which have shaped the dog’s instinctual behaviour. A biophysicist can explain physical constraints on the way the dog can move. And there are many other different scientific ways of explaining the dog’s catching the ball. On the Quinean picture; one can say that the dog’s behaviour fits with behavioural laws, laws of physics etc. but isn’t guided by these rules.

A reasonable way of cashing out Quine and Skinner’s views is in terms of free-floating rationales and competencies without comprehension[1]. A famous example of competence without comprehension is Deer Stotting. When Deer are being chased by Lions they engage in a behaviour called Stotting. Stotting involves jumping high while they are being chased. Detailed observations of Lions hunting Deer indicates that Lions are statistically more unlikely to hunt Deer who are proficient at stotting. Now the reason for this is pretty obvious; the deer who engage in dramatic stotting are signalling fitness and strength because of ability to jump high while being chased. It would make more sense for the Lion to chase the Deer who is bad at stotting as they are obviously easier to catch. However, there is no reason to think that Lions are capable of explicitly thinking such thoughts about the fitness of their prey. The Lions have a competence to distinguish between fit and unfit prey; but they lack the comprehension of why they behave as they do. There are reasons for what the Lion does; but the reasons aren’t represented to the Lion. Dennett call’s these reasons which aren’t represented ‘Free-Floating-Rationales’.

In a way the cases we have reviewed are a bit too easy. Few people think that Dogs represent reasons for catching a ball, or Lions represent reasons for attacking poor Stotters. But when it comes to linguistic creatures; things are a bit different. Both Skinner and Quine argue that we should only say that a person is following a rule if they are consciously following and can state what the rule is. But even in this case things can get messy. People can state reasons for what they are doing and the reasons may not be accurate; likewise people can state the rules of the language they are speaking but scientific investigation will reveal that the rules they state do not correspond with the structure of the language the scientist discovers. Skinner gave a clichéd example to illustrate his point using a psychoanalytic explanation:

  “Freud would indicate different reasons for doing something than the reasons you gave. But the reasons he would have given…If they are unconscious reasons, then they must be what I have been calling causes and not reasons because they are not verbalWhen you were young you were reinforced in many ways in the presence of your mother’s face. Then you grow up and you fall in love with a woman who looks like your mother looked at that time. That’s all a matter of cause in the sense that it’s just a behavioural process. But you give reasons why you find her beautiful. Then Freud turns up and says aha you overlooked the fact that she looked like your mother when you were a child. So that the contingencies, the unanalysed, un-rationalized contingencies, were simply the fact that that person is attracted to her and that is where motivation comes in, whether the mother was feeding you caressing you and so on, and you go for that kind of person, and you go for this woman. But then you give a lot of other reasons, she is very intellectual, you enjoy talking to her, and so on. You give all sorts of reasons, which as Freud would point out are not the real reason you married her. You married for unconscious reasons, and the fact that it is unconscious means that you haven’t talked about it, and couldn’t talk about it, without converting it into reason governed behaviour. The real reason you married her was because she looked like your mother and as soon as you say that it is now a description of the contingencies.” (Skinner ‘Quine- Skinner Conversation’)


Skinner’s example is interesting. When Freud explains our behaviour in-terms of unconscious motivations he was typically using quasi agents like the ID, the Ego etc and deep repressed feelings. Skinner’s explanations on the other-hand are brute causal. The person is caused to be attracted to a woman who resembles his mother, and the person gives various different reasons to explain why he is attracted to the woman. The reasons he gives are false reasons; the real reason is a causal Freudian story. And the reason the person finds the woman attractive isn’t even a reason in the sense of something that the person represents to himself. On the above story the person’s attraction to that particular woman can be explained in a similar way to the way we explain the Lion’s bias against  attacking stotting deer. There are reasons we can derive to explain the person’s attraction but the reasons are not reasons that the person represents to himself. 

When discussing this issue with Skinner; Quine noted that in this sense the real reasons are actually causes while the reasons the person gives are only pseudo-reasons:


 “So reasons would be separated, the way that the notion of cause separates reasons from false rationalisations. False rationalisations and reasons have in common that they are verbalised, but reasons are distinguished from the false rationalisations in that they are really causes as well…so all reasons are causes...A reason is a verbalised cause (the verbalisation may be through someone else) such that the subject accepts the verbalisation and is aware that it is the cause…” (Quine ‘Quine-Skinner Conversation’)


Quine’s clarification is to the point. Something is a real reason if it tracks a causal sequence. However, the real reason for a behaviour doesn’t have to be represented to the person engaging in the behaviour.  The reason can be discovered and represented to a scientist studying the behaviour (think of stotting deer). Quine adds a twist that I see no reason to accept. Quine notes that in order to be a real reason it must be accepted by the subject as the correct reason and the subject must be aware that the reason given is the cause of his behaviour. Here Quine was thinking of Skinner’s Freudian example and of the accepted Freudian practice where the subject in analysis would come to realise the truth of the Freudian explanation. However there is no reason for us to adopt Quine’s conception of the nature of reasons. If a scientist can discover the reason a deer stotts independently of whether the deer can represent that reason then why can’t the same be true of humans? A psychologist discovers the real reason a person does x but the person may be incapable of understanding the truth of that explanation; nonetheless the scientific explanation will still be the correct one. 

A dissenter could argue that I am too quick in assuming that a scientist can discover the real reason a person behaves as they do; even if the person the scientist  is studying does not accept that the purported explanation is correct. If we think of our discussion of a dog catching a ball from earlier in the essay. In the case of the Dog we discovered many possible explanations of the dogs behaviour in terms of biophysics, operant conditioning, instinctual behaviour etc. The dog’s behaviour can be explained through a multi faceted series of scientific laws and tendencies. But as Quine and Skinner noted above; when discussing rules, there is little reason to think that the dog represented any of these laws when behaving. If we can explain the dog’s behaviour causally in terms of a battery of laws; why do we need to use the language of reasons at all. All we would have would be a causal story about why the dog behaves as he behaves. There seems to be nothing added by saying we are explaining the reason the dog behaves as he does. 

When Dennett speaks of Free Floating Rationales he is speaking of a reason the Lion hunts the way he does. These are reasons the Lion doesn’t represent, and they are reasons that nobody represented a few hundred years ago prior to scientists studying the behaviour. Nonetheless Dennett would argue that the reasons the scientists discovered are the real reasons that explain the Lions behaviour. These reasons were the real reasons prior to anyone representing these reasons. 

One wonders what work the word ‘reason’ (in the sense of a free floating rationale that nobody has represented) is doing, that couldn’t be done by simply using the word ‘cause’. It seems to me that the word is doing no extra work that couldn’t be done by the word ‘cause’. A better verbal choice would be to restrict reasons to speak about explanations that have been represented verbally by the person who engaged in the behaviour. And to use the word cause to explain behaviours such as Dogs catching balls, and Deer Stotting. A scientist can discover the causal sequences that lead to a behaviour occurring and this explanation can contradict the reasons that the person gives to explain their behaviour. In this case the simplest way of parsing it would be to say that the person’s reasons for why they did x was a false reason, and that the scientist has discovered the true causal explanation of the behaviour. There is no point in arguing that the scientist has discovered the real reason the person has behaved in way x; the simpler solution would simply be to say that the scientist has hit on the right causal explanation of behaviour x. We should leave reason based explanations to be folk psychological explanations people use to explain their behaviour; and add the proviso that such explanations will more than likely turn out to be false and be replaced by causal explanations.  Though in practical day to day interactions reason based explanations will probably always be necessary and useful. 



                         Rosenberg’s Radical Eliminativism 


In his book ‘How History Gets Things Wrong’,  Rosenberg goes even further than Quine and Skinner and attempts to explain away all reason based explanations into explanations in terms of causes. When discussing narrative explanations used by some historians; Rosenberg is dismissive. He argues that such explanations rely on outdated theory of mind explanations which have been refuted by modern neuroscience.  The famous french diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand has inspired thousands of biographies trying to explain the various different reasons for his behaviour leading up the French Revolution, and beyond it. However, Rosenberg dismisses these detailed biographies as being nothing more than fairy stories:

“But now it can be revealed that all of their purported explanations of Talleyarand’s decisions to backstab are fundamentally and profoundly wrong; they are not even close to the truth of what was going on inside his mind. That is because their explanations all relied on the theory of mind, and, alas, that theories claims are completely irrelevant to Talleyrand’s actual thought processes.” (ibid p. 142)


Rosenberg argues that because narrative history relies on theory of mind explanations and there is no evidence of a theory of mind module in the brain we can dismiss such explanations as meaningless. He also appeals to the fact that biographies about famous figures are constantly churned out and they seem to reveal no fact of the matter about what the subjects of the biographies reasons for their behaviour are. There are multiple different explanations of why Hitler hated Jewish people that are compatible with the known facts of his behaviour and no way to discover which explanation is the correct one. Rosenberg argues that the only way to actually discover why people like Hitler and Talleyarand thought as they did would be to look at their brains. However, when neuroscientists do study the structure of brains they find nothing resembling belief/desire explanations. 


To justify his claim that the brain doesn’t contain anything like the kind of explanations that one finds in folk psychological explanation Rosenberg gives us a whirlwind tour into findings in the neuroscience of memory and decision making:

“What they had discovered in the sea slug was nothing less than Pavlov’s classical conditioning mechanism…When we acquire new beliefs and store them in memory, the neurons in our brains do exactly the same thing that the neurons in the sea slug’s brain do when it acquires and stores new behaviours-only with a lot more LTP and lots of neurons growing new synapses…Kandel and his colleagues were able to show that the same molecular mechanisms and the same somatic genes that build new synaptic connections responsible for acquiring and storing implicit long-term memories in the sea slug, roundworm, and fruit fly are also responsible for acquiring and storing explicit long-term memories in vertebrates, mammals, primates, and us.” (ibid p. 128) 


Rosenberg goes on to discuss the Nobel Prize winning work of O Keefe et al on place cells and uses it to demonstrate that rats behaviour when understood at the neural level involves nothing that looks like a theory of mind module. He then goes on to argue that all the evidence we have so far indicates that humans are just more complicated versions of a rat’s brain doing more of the same thing (ibid p.139) 


Rosenberg’s eliminativism about belief-desire explanations is stunningly radical. While famous eliminativists like the Churchlands describe their eliminativism about folk psychology as an empirical hypothesis about what discoveries future research into neuroscience would bring. Rosenberg acts as if all of the relevant science has been done and eliminativism has been vindicated; but this is utter nonsense. At this state of play we don’t have a fully sketched out theory of consciousness. At the moment illusionists, emergentists, and pan-psychists are debating the nature of consciousness. Heavy rhetoric aside as things stand we don’t know which explanation of consciousness is the correct one. Furthermore the question of the degree to which our belief-desire psychology is dependent on the type of consciousness we have, or the relation of language to folk psychology is a complex one that Rosenberg casually glosses over. 

As we saw above when discussing Quine and Skinner I have no difficulty accepting that a lot of our explanations of our behaviour in terms of reasons may turn out to be false and be eliminated in terms of causal explanations. But such eliminations have to be done on a case by case basis. From a pragmatic point of view there seems to be no alternative but to use our folk psychology to predict and explain behaviour in most cases. Narrative explanations may not be perfect but it is doubtful they will ever be entirely replaced by findings in neuroscience. 




[1] For details see Dennett 1995, 2018.

E.O. Wilson’s Criticism of John Rawls

John Rawls would be almost universally regarded as one of the most important political philosophers in the last hundred years. To most philosophers his ‘A Theory of Justice’ would be considered a classic and would be a set text for pretty much all political philosophy courses. His work has plenty of critics but most of his critics acknowledge the importance of his work (see criticisms from Nozick, Habermas, and Rorty etc.). Not all of Rawls’ critics employ the same level of respect and careful reading as Nozick et all. In his article for the Atlantic ‘On the Biological Basis Morality’ (1998) biologist E.O.Wilson savagely attacked Rawl’s views on political philosophy (and political philosophy in general). According to Wilson, Rawls’ focus on transcendental arguments and ignorance of science makes his work of little importance. Unlike most of Rawls’ critics Wilson seems to find little of value in Rawls work. Furthermore unlike most of Rawls’ critics Wilson didn’t seem to have bothered reading Rawls’ work before criticizing it.

Rawls wasn’t the primary target of Wilson’s article. Wilson wrote his article as a criticism of philosophers and theologians who constructed moral theories while ignoring basic findings in biology. I agree with Wilson on the importance of any theory of morality and political philosophy being constrained and informed by evolutionary psychology and biology. However, I find little of value in Wilson’s ignorant attack on Rawls which ignored Rawls’ actual views and instead attacked a caricature. The scope of this blog-post will be limited to criticizing Wilson’s criticism of Rawl’s views it will leave it to other authors to engage with Wilson’s overall polemic against political philosophy and theology.

Wilson’s primary criticism Rawl’s theory is that it is ignorant of relevant facts about science. In his 1998 Atlantic Article Wilson makes the following blanket criticism of Rawl’s work:

“Rawls ventured no thought on where the human brain comes from or how it works. He offered no evidence that justice as fairness is consistent with human nature, hence practicable as a blanket premise…Transcendentalism remains firm in the hearts of…countless scholars in the social sciences and the humanities who, like Moore and Rawls, have chosen to insulate their thinking from the natural sciences” (Wilson ‘The Biological Basis of Morality’ )


Wilson makes a number of points in the above paragraph which warrant a bit of discussion. Firstly I should note the one area where I think Wilson is correct. Rawls does offer little by way of an examination of how the human brain works; but this isn’t because Rawls has chosen to “insulate his thinking from the natural sciences”. Rather Rawls focused on evidence from psychology, economics, and evolutionary science; his focus on these subjects in 1971 was sensible as these empirical disciplines were much more advanced than the neuroscience of the time.

The absurdity of Wilson’s claim that Rawl’s was ‘insulating himself from the science of his time” can be seen by considering the scientists Rawl’s cited and incorporated into his theory in chapter 8 of ‘A Theory of Justice’ called ‘A Sense of Justice’:

W.R. Ashby ‘Design for a Brain’, Harvey Leibenstein ‘Economic Backwardness and Economic Growth’, Albert Bandura ‘Principles of Behaviour Modification’, Roger Brown ‘Social Psychology’, Paul H. Mussen ‘Carmichael’s Manual of Psychology’, Ronald Fletcher, ‘Instinct in Man’, Jean Piaget ‘The Moral Judgement of the Child’, Lawrence Kohlberg ‘The Development of Children’s Orientation towards a Moral Order’. Goslin D. A. ‘Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research’, William Mc Dougall ‘An Introduction to Social Psychology’ E.E. Maccoby, ‘Moral Values and Behaviour in Childhood’, John Flavell ‘The Development of Role-Taking and Communication Skills in Children’, G.H. Mead, ‘Mind, Self and Society’, A.F. Shand ‘Foundations of Character’, G.C. Homans ‘The Human Group’, G.C. Homes ‘Social Behaviour its Elementary Forms’, R. B. Trivers ‘Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism’ , G.C. Williams ‘Adaptation and Natural Selection’, Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt ‘Ethology’.

Rawls critically engaged with all of the above scientists when trying to understand how humans developed their sense of Justice. It is utterly absurd for Wilson to accuse Rawl’s of insulating himself from natural science.

What is most notable in Wilson’s comments is his claim that Rawl’s offered no evidence that justice as fairness was consistent with human nature. On the contrary Rawl’s believed that a strength of his theory, as opposed to, alternatives such as utilitarianism, was that it was more consistent with our human nature. Rawl’s argued that it was very important his theory was psychologically plausible:

However attractive a conception of justice might be on other grounds, it is seriously defective if the principles of moral psychology are such that it fails to engender in human beings the requisite desire to act upon it…Most traditional doctrines hold that to some degree at least human nature is such that we acquire a desire to act justly when we have lived under and benefited from just institutions. To the extent that this is true, a conception of justice is psychologically suited to human inclinations…The task of this chapter is to explain how justice as fairness generates its own support and to show that it is likely to have greater stability than the traditional alternatives since it is more in line with the principles of moral psychology. To this end, I shall describe briefly how human beings in a well-ordered society might acquire a sense of justice and the other moral sentiments.” (‘A Theory of Justice pp.455-456)


Rawl’s considers two main theories of our moral sentiments. The first theory is empiricism which he says runs from Hume, to Sidgwick up to present day social learning theory. Rawls puts Freud in the empiricist camp. He parses the empiricist position as:

“The aim of moral training is to supply missing motives: the desire to do what is right for its own sake” (ibid p. 458)


The other tradition of moral learning is rationalist. In this tradition Rawl’s places Rousseau, Kant, Mill, and Piaget. He parses the rationalist theory as follows:

“Moral learning is not so much a matter of supplying missing motives as one of the free development of our innate intellectual capacities according to their natural bent” (ibid p. 459)


Rawl’s consideration of the two major schools of thought is interesting in that he branches philosophers and psychologists into categories together depending on the emphasis they give to innate architecture in humans cognitive development. He doesn’t just focus on philosophical arguments but he makes use of empirical data in constructing his theory.

In theorising how humans acquire their moral sense Rawls offers three psychological laws that he argues play a role in humans acquiring their moral sense; (1) The Morality of Authority, (2) The Morality of Association, (3) The Morality of Principles. Discussing the nature of these laws and the evidence he offers for them will be revealing of Rawl’s respect for the findings of natural science.

The Morality of Authority:

Rawls discussion of the morality of authority involves a consideration of how a child comes to accept the authority of their parents as valid and develops the capacity to feel guilty for circumventing that authority. He sums up his conjecture with the line “The child comes to love the parents only if they manifestly love him first”. Rawl’s speculates that the child will experience his parents as all powerful creatures who get to decide how things should be done. But the child will recognize that the parent loves him and will eventually internalize the capacity to follow the simple rules the parent sets. Because the child will recognize the parents love for them they will learn to follow the rules even when the parents are not there or aren’t offering rewards for the good behaviour. The child will even develop the capacity to feel guilty for transgressing these simple rules. But the child won’t really have any concept of what justifies these rules. Rawl’s cites E.E. Maccoby ‘Moral Values and Behaviour in Childhood’ to support his claims about the child’s development of the morality of authority.


                           The Morality of Association:

In the beginning of the child’s development his primary association is the family group. But as the child grows up into the world they become members of many different intersecting groups. Each of these groups has its own idiosyncratic rules that the child must learn to follow. By becoming skilled at adopting to his role in various different groups; school, the neighbourhood, friends, team mates etc. the child learns the contextual nature of his role in groups. His identity means something different in each different group. When the child starts growing up and recognizing different groups he is no longer just following the precepts given by his parents. The child must learn to understand himself and others from a variety of different points of view depending on the various different groups he is a member of (Rawl’s cites Mead ‘Mind, Self, and Society’, and Flavell ‘The Development of Role taking and Communication Skills in Children’ in support of his conjectures). Rawl’s argues that through a similar process as the child learns the precepts of his parents; the child comes to learn the rules of the other groups he joins. But by immersing himself in many different groups the child gives himself a deeper understanding of these different moral rules.

The Morality of Principles:

The morality of association is a step up from the morality of authority in the sense that the developing person now has an understanding of rules and how they apply relative to the different groups. However, the morality of association still has severe limits in that it still relies on a sense of fellow feeling between the person at that stage of his development and the members of the various different groups he is in. The person still hasn’t developed any sense of principles that apply independent of contingent ties of affection and friendship. For Rawl’s a person becomes a true moral agent when they will need to acquire an understanding of abstract principles that go beyond contingent friendships. Rawl’s parses the acquiring of the morality of principles as follows:

“Now this leads to an acceptance of these principles by a third psychological law. This law states that once the attitudes of love and trust, and of friendly feelings and mutual confidence, have been generated in accordance with the two preceding psychological laws, then the recognition that we and those for whom we care are beneficiaries of an established and enduring just institution tends to engender in us the corresponding sense of justice. We develop a desire to apply and to act upon the principles of justice once realize how social arrangements answering to them have promoted our good and that of those with whom we are affiliated. In due course we come to appreciate the ideal of just human cooperation.” (ibid p. 474)


                           Justice as Fairness versus Utilitarianism

As we saw above in his 1998 article ‘The biological basis of Morality’ Wilson criticized Rawl’s for insulating himself from the discoveries of natural science and ignoring the question of whether his theory of justice as fairness is compatible with what we know about human nature. Wilson didn’t present any evidence to support his contention and as we have seen contrary to what Wilson claimed Rawl’s was very cognizant of the importance of empirical findings on human nature and its relevance to his theory of justice. Another accusation that Wilson threw at Rawls was that he simply made dogmatic claims which other philosophers denied by making contradictory dogmatic claims of their own. Wilson presents a bleak picture of moral and political philosophy:

“Ethicists, scholars who specialize in moral reasoning, tend not to declare themselves on the foundations of ethics, or to admit fallibility… Rawls opens ‘A Theory of Justice’ with a proposition he regards as irrevocable…A very different premise is presented by Robert Nozick in ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’…Rawls would point us toward egalitarianism regulated by the state, Nozick toward libertarianism in a minimal state.” (Wilson ‘The Biological Basis of Morality’)


Wilson’s interpretation of moral philosophy is utterly bizarre. He seems to think that there is no argumentative rigor in the discipline and that empirical data that would bear on the issue is entirely ignored. Wilson offers no evidence for this strange interpretation other than the fact that two philosophers have a fundamental disagreement on a particular issue. He entirely ignores the evidence provided by each theorist and the arguments they present and simply asserts that because they disagree on something this proves that moral philosophy involves nothing more than dogmatic assertions. His reasoning would be on a par with a creationist who believed that because Wilson and Dawkins disagree on group selection then this proves that evolutionary theorists are simply making up things as they go along.

After asserting without argument that moral philosophers are simply making up their theories and are ignoring science, Wilson claims that making use of discoveries in biology would have been a good starting point for these errant philosophers. Interestingly Rawls does in fact appeal to evolutionary science as a reason that his Theory of Justice is a more plausible theory than utilitarianism.

Rawls notes has famously argued that a person who is in the original position would be rational to want to adopt the justice as fairness conception. However, he noted that in practice such a cooperative scheme would be vulnerable to free-riders who took advantage of the cooperative scheme without contributing much themselves. Hobbes had argued that to stop free-riders taking advantage of a scheme of cooperation it would be necessary for a sovereign to be in place who could punish those who chose to be free-riders.

Rawl’s however thinks that the three psychological laws; (1) Morality of Authority, (2) Morality of Association, (3) Morality of Principle, would be sufficient to ensure that the vast majority of people reared in a functioning democratic system would be encultured to find the idea of being a free-rider distasteful. So the stability of our cooperative scheme would be made more likely because of our psychological nature within the particular system of justice.

He contrasts this state of affairs with a well ordered society paired with the principle of utility. In such a society the psychological laws would have to be altered. The second psychological law would have to be “people tend to develop friendly feelings toward those who with evident intention do their part in cooperative schemes publically known to maximize the sum of advantages, or the average well-being” (ibid p. 499). Rawl’s correctly notes that this psychological law isn’t as plausible as the one he sketched under justice as fairness. He furthermore noted that such principles are less likely to be accepted by people who are less fortunate and told that the principle must be accepted because it is for the greater good. Ultimately Rawl’s argues that a utilitarian principle will lead to a less stable society than the justice as fairness conception. He argues that this is because people will find it psychologically difficult to accept the utilitarian philosophy.

Rawl’s offers an evolutionary argument to explain why people will be naturally more inclined to accept justice as fairness than its utilitarian rival. Citing the work of Konrad Lorenz, he notes that there is amble evidence that behavioural patterns have been as much shaped by natural selection as has our bodily parts such as arms and legs etc. (ibid p. 503). He notes is mountains evidence from evolutionary science (he cites: Trivers, Williams, Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt) that indicates that humans evolved in small groups where there was selection pressure on cooperation within these groups.

Finally he asks whether these selection pressures will have made humans more psychologically prone to utilitarian philosophy or justice as fairness:

“if selection is always of individuals and their genetic lines, and if the capacity for the various forms of moral behaviour has some genetic basis, then altruism in the strict sense would generally be limited to kin and the smaller face-to-face groups. In these cases the willingness to make considerable self-sacrifice would favour one’s descendants and tend to be selected. Turning to the other extreme, a society which had a strong propensity to supererogatory conduct in its relations with other societies would jeopardize the existence of its own distinctive culture and its members would risk domination. Therefore one might conjecture that the capacity to act from the more universal forms of rational benevolence is likely to be eliminated, whereas the capacity to follow principles of justice and natural duty in relations between groups and individuals other than kin would be favoured. We can also see how the system of the moral feelings might evolve as inclinations supporting the natural duties and as stabilizing mechanisms for just schemes. If this correct, then once again the principles of justice are more securely based.” ( Rawls ‘A Theory of Justice’ pp.503-504)


Now obviously Rawl’s isn’t claiming that these evolutionary speculations prove that his conception is superior. Rather he is merely arguing that they offer an explanation as to why justice as fairness is more psychologically plausible than utilitarianism.

It is not the purpose of this blog post to take sides on the debate between Utilitarianism and Justice as Fairness. Nor am I claiming that Rawl’s sketch of evolutionary considerations is remotely complete. Rather all I have aimed at in this blog-post was to demonstrate that contra Wilson there is no evidence that Rawls is trying to shield himself from scientific findings.

Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History


“I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance, the Jury-man, the Judge, long ranks of new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” (Charles Dickens ‘A Tale of Two Cities p. 292)

In this blog-post I will evaluate Ben Shapiro’s claim that the different levels of violence in the French Revolution and the American Revolution can be accounted for in terms of the different underlying philosophies which motivated both revolutions. In part 1 of the blog-post I will show that from a logical point of view Shapiro’s argument doesn’t prove what he thinks it does. While in part 2 I will evaluate the empirical data Shapiro presents. The overall conclusion of the blog-post will be that Shapiro’s argument doesn’t go through on either logical or empirical grounds.

                              Part 1: A Logical Analysis:

In his 2019 book ‘The Right Side of History’ Ben Shapiro made a causal claim about the nature of the Enlightenment. According to Shapiro the Enlightenment has two major strands:

“The Enlightenment straddled two sides of a thin line. On the one side was the American Enlightenment, based on the consummation of a long history of thought stretching back to Athens and Jerusalem, down through Great Britain and the Glorious Revolution, and to the New World; on the other was the European Enlightenment, which rejected Athens and Jerusalem in order to build new worlds beyond discoverable purpose and divine revelation.” ( Ben Shapiro ‘The Right Side of History’ p. 122)

Shapiro argued that history performed a comparative experiment as to which form of Enlightenment was the superior one. He reasoned as follows: the American Revolution was primarily influenced by the Judeo-Christian philosophy and the Greek philosophical tradition whereas the French Revolution was influenced by the philosophy of Rousseau with his emphasis on the general will and Voltaire’s general scorn for tradition (ibid p. 122). He went on to note that the French Revolution was much more violent than the American Revolution. So he concluded; X and Y had different levels of violence and the different levels of violence are best explained by different underlying philosophies p and q. Therefore since p and q are the only relevant differences between X and Y they are assumed to be the cause of the difference. This explanation is a simple billiard ball explanation. If a ball 1 hits ball 2 and then ball 2 moves then the only logical explanation is that ball 1 hitting ball 2 is the cause of its moving.

Shapiro’s reasoning is somewhat clear. If there is one clear difference between two distinct outcomes e.g. (a particular philosophical system being adopted) then it is a reasonable conjecture that this difference is the cause of the distinct outcomes. Nonetheless, prior to looking at the details it is important to note some obvious flaws in Shapiro’s reasoning. It is (or should be) a truism that correlations aren’t identical with causation. To use a clichéd example, imagine a bell and horn which are built to go off in sequence, the bell goes off and immediately a horn goes off. The reason they follow each other in sequence is because of a timer built into the bell and the horn by a designer. A naïve theorist who hears the bell go off and immediately hears the horn follow a few hundred times could make the erroneous conjecture that the bell is the cause of the horn going off. Such a naïve theorist would be guilty of confusing correlations (x always preceding y) with a causal statement that x is the cause of y. To avoid such simple confusion of correlation with causation our naïve theorist should have tried a variety of different experiments to disentangle whether x was actually the cause of y.

Shapiro’s reasoning is a paradigm case of confusing causation with correlation. He assumes that because something {distinct philosophical systems} can be correlated with different outcomes; therefore the distinct philosophical systems are the cause of the different outcomes. We know from the physical sciences how difficult it can be to isolate a singular cause of a particular state of affairs. A good technique to use is Mill’s method of differences where you do experiments where you can isolate various different factors { selectively removing or adding them} to see what outcome their addition or subtraction has to the phenomena you are studying. Shapiro seems to think that the different outcomes of the French and American revolutions in terms of violence are a natural experiment which show that Judeo Christian/Greek philosophies are the relevant factor in causing a less violent outcome.

Even if we grant for the sake of argument Shapiro’s empirical premises (1) The French Revolution was more violent than The American Revolution, (2) The only difference between the two different revolutions were the different philosophies adopted. It still wouldn’t follow that Judeo Christian Philosophy/Greek Philosophy made the American Revolution less violent. One could instead conjecture that the key variable was the influence of Rousseau and Voltaire’s philosophy which made the French Revolution more violent. One could argue consistently with Shapiro’s premises that the Judeo Christian/ Greek Philosophies do little work and the primary thing to emphasise is the importance of Rousseau and Voltaire’s philosophies in in causing the levels of violence. The primary point to note is that Shapiro’s natural experiment isn’t fine grained enough to decide between the different alternative interpretations we presented above. Contrary to Shapiro’s confident assertions his “natural experiment” does not tell us that adoption of Judeo-Christian/Greek philosophy is the key causal factor in the levels of violence that occurred in the revolutions. His natural history experiment leaves it underdetermined what the relevant causal factor was in the different levels of violence in the two Revolutions were.

In the above discussion we took Shapiro’s generalizations at face value and showed that even if we accept his generalisations they do not demonstrate what the causal factor is in the different levels of violence in both revolutions. In the next section we will look at the Shapiro’s empirical claims and examine whether he has provided sufficient support to justify them. By the end of the next section we will have conclusively shown that Shapiro’s empirical assumptions aren’t even remotely justified. We will have shown that Shapiro’s analysis of the French and American Revolution is unsupported on either empirical or logical grounds.

                     Part 2: An Empirical Analysis

When trying to evaluate Shapiro’s claims about both revolutions it is striking how rationalistic his interpretation of both revolutions is. On Shapiro’s world view both revolutions are idea lead and any difference in outcome can be explained by the influence of these ideas. On his picture; people subscribe to certain philosophies, and these philosophies dictate their actions in the world. In the words of Shapiro’s friend Sam Harris “Beliefs have Consequences”. If the people leading the French Revolution held the philosophy that there “were are no rights over and above the will of the people”, and that “traditions are there to be torn down” then this belief would have certain consequences.

At one level the “beliefs have consequences” mantra is a truism that is hard to deny. If I believe that it is going to rain today this may have the consequence of me wearing a rain coat. But when it comes to more complex behavioural patterns it becomes harder to tell a rationalistic view of the beliefs that people are subscribing to and how these beliefs effect behaviour. Firstly individuating beliefs is no trivial matter. A person says that he is behaving is a particular way x because of certain beliefs that he holds, nonetheless we can have good reason to doubt that the person is actually acting because of these professed beliefs. In the psychological literature there is an abundance of data which indicates that people’s reasons for their actions are not transparent to them. So, for example, in some psychological experiments words are flashed at people on a screen at such speeds that the mind cannot consciously register the words and would deny seeing them. Nonetheless when experimenters use various different word association tests the experimental subjects show a preferential bias for the word that has just been flashed before them. When asked about this preferential bias the subjects typically offer a series of confabulations to explain their behaviour and are surprised to learn that they are confabulating and that the real reason they show the preference is because the image was flashed before them below the level of consciousness and these subliminal images are the cause of their preferential word biases. In these controlled experiments people’s expressed reasons to explain their behaviour are less reliable than it may first appear. There are hundreds of experiments of this type, which indicate that our cognizance of the reasons for our behaviour are less transparent to us than we typically think.

Nonetheless, it could be objected to the above claim that the experiments in the psychological literature involve casual belief desire explanations by subjects in highly artificial circumstances. Hence the experiments have little to say about how a subject’s beliefs on philosophical subjects they have thought deeply about effect their behaviour when acting in the world.

However, despite there not being an abundance of controlled experiments on people’s philosophical beliefs and their effects on behaviour in political situations; there is reason to be sceptical of Shapiro’s cheerful rationalism. A brief discussion of the French Revolution will serve to disabuse one of the simple belief that it was a natural consequence of a particular philosophy playing out. Any reading of the French revolution will have to give contingent events as big role to play in the explanation as the role of abstract philosophical systems.

The terror of Contingency

Shapiro focuses on philosophical tracts which influenced the main protagonists in the French Revolution. He spends less time considering art and its influence on the emotions of French people from various different strata. Literacy rates were extremely high (Citizens p. 180) in France at the time of the French Revolution and various different art forms were extremely important to people of various different social standing. Comic Operas such as ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ captivated and amused people through a series of jokes, sardonic sneers, etc. Paintings by people Greuze’s, Diderot’s plays, etc captured the publics imagination. These various different art forms moved people in ways that are not precisely quantifiable and had as much influence on people’s behaviour during the revolution as any philosophical text did. It is impossible to pick out a few abstract ideas and to claim that these ideas governed the behaviour of the various different players in the revolution; human behaviour is never that simple.

One of the most hated figures of the French Aristocracy was Mary Antoinette. But the French public’s general relationship to her wasn’t one of abstract philosophical ruminations on the nature of aristocracy. On the contrary she roused misogynistic fantasies amongst the French public, gossip and short stories about her centred on her engaging in orgies, having incestuous relationships with her son etc. When trying to understand the behaviour of people during and in the lead up to the Revolution it is important to view people as emotional and not always rational agents and to not pretend that they are simply acting on dry philosophical ideas.

Even idiosyncratic acts of nature can influence the behaviour of people and direct it in ways it may not have gone in otherwise. So, for example, in France in 1788 there was hailstorm burst, and in much of France a drought followed. That, in turn, was succeeded by a winter of a severity the like of which had not been seen since 1709 (Citizens p. 305):

“Frozen rivers stopped water mills from turning what grain there was into flour, and prevented transportation of emergency supplies to areas of greatest want. Deep snow lay on the ground as far south as the Haute-Garonne, west of Toulouse, where between Feburary 26 and April 10th there were fresh falls almost every other day. In January Mirabeau described Provence as visited by the Exterminating Angel. “Every scourge has been unloosed. Everywhere I have found men dead of cold and hunger, and in the midst of wheat for lack of flour, all the mills being frozen.”

The thaw brought its own miseries. In mid-January, the frozen Loire melted suddenly, sending flood waters over fields and pasture and bursting through rudimentary retaining dikes into the streets of Blois and Tours…the cruelties of the weather followed a harvest in 1787 that was no better than medicore…” ( Citizens p. 305)

All of this caused the doubling of bread prices and firewood which were basic requirements of the French peasants. Such contingent hardships can have wild effects on a groups political persuasions. With people cold, hungry and desperate it is more and more difficult to please them in trying to appease them in negotiations about how society is to be run.

None of the points I have touched on are decisive points in French Revolution or the Terrors that followed. I am merely pointing out that Shapiro’s emphasis on the key role played by philosophical views in distinguishing the French Revolution from the American Revolution is too disembodied and abstract. It ignores the lived experience and emotional lives of the people who lived through the revolution. Shapiro argues as if the revolution was simply the result of abstract philosophical principles being followed and ignores the concrete experiences of people living through the revolution.

Another weakness of in Shapiro’s account is that he argues as though there were no other differences between the French and American Revolution. He ignores the obvious difference that the colonists in America saw themselves fighting an external force from another country. Whereas in the French Revolution they were fighting not an external force but internal forces who represented different class interests.

Unconscious Logic and Group Cohesion

“Have you ever been a stranger to yourself? Many many times…” (Picard)
We all live in groups; family groups, work groups, society at large etc. In our individualized society we sometimes focus on ourselves and how we can improve our own behaviour and make our lives better. But people tend to forget that they are always embedded within a mishmash of different groups and a large part of who we are is determined by the groups we are embedded in. Saying that our behaviour is partly determined by the groups we are a part of isn’t meant to imply we have no agency. We have agency to the degree we can engineer some of the groups we are a part of; we can decide what these groups aims are and design them to better fulfill our aims.
In this blog-post I want to discuss group interactions and how structural dynamics can sometimes lead people to behave in ways that seem out of character when judged by their previous behavioural patterns. I will explore how these structural dynamics can result in difficulties in small group interactions. For simplicity sake I will focus primarily on workplace interactions; though these interactions can occur in any small group. Finally I will discuss scientific techniques that help minimize the possibility of such group conflicts. A good example of our behavioural patterns being determined by structural features can be seen in Peter Turchin’s work on history which through cross cultural comparisons details how we sometimes get dragged into wars revolutions etc. Our decisions are sometimes made by structural features of our social environments. So, even though we like to think we are the author of our decisions, our choices are determined by outside factors. In his ‘Ages of Discord’ Turchin discussed some factors that may have led to periodic breakdown of agrarian societies. The agent’s living in the agrarian society would have believed that they were making decisions x or y for various different reasons. However, Structural Demographic Theory argues that population growth in excess of productivity can have several effects on social institutions: (A) It leads to persistent price inflation, falling real wages, rural misery, urban migration, and increased frequency of food riots and wage protests, (B) Rapid expansion of population results in elite overproduction which results in an increasing number of aspirants competing for limited resources, (C) Population growth leads to expansion of army and bureacracy and to rising real costs (‘Ages of Discord’ p. 11). Turchin reworked this principle in order to describe revolutionary leaps in industrial societies; (1) The Neo-Malthusian Principle, (2) the principle of elite over- production, (3) the structural demographic causes of political instability. Turchin’s theory explains human behaviour as being governed by laws of which we are not aware. We may give reasons for acting in the way we do but the reasons we give may be nothing other than rationalisations; our behaviour may actually be caused by structural features that are outside of our control. While Turchin’s analysis details large societal fluxuations his work is an example of structural features influencing individual decisions. As we will see later in this structural features also have effects on people’s interactions in small groups as well. We may give certain reasons to explain our interactions within our group but the reasons we give may be pure rationalisations; likewise our speculations as to why our colleagues behave towards us in certain ways may be pure fiction as well. For this reason it is useful to try to understand group interactions in a scientific manner instead of relying on folk-psychological speculations. Nonetheless, with the science of group interaction still in its infancy any theory of group behaviour will still rely somewhat on folk psychology in its explanations.
In daily interactions with one another people typically engage on a personal level. They interpret each others behaviour in terms of their shared history of interactions, and by interpreting gossip and other pieces of information to update their implicit models of each other. However, aside from using implicit models of who a person is when we interpret each others behaviour we also think using abstract categories. When we talk to other people we are unconsciously categorizing them in various different ways; so a person can be interpreted under classes such as Mother, Professor, British, etc.
In a work-place environment people are typically bracketed into various different groups. You have Managers, Front line workers, Admin staff etc. When interacting with each other people can interpret each other using folk psychology (attributing various different beliefs/desires) to each other; and these folk psychological ascriptions can be skewed by the type of categorisation we implicitly employ when interpreting each other. Thus, consider two employees who are interacting with each other in work; they will have a shared history together, common experiences in the job, and all of these connections will be interpreted under various different emotional hues depending on the relationship. In these interactions some abstract ways of categorising each other can become salient, and the abstract categorisation can become the primary mode of interpreting the others behaviour. A concrete example may help.
Consider two people talking in work one of whom is a nurse and the other is a health care assistant. While these people have an incredibly complex network of relations with each other, in some situations the abstract category of nurse or health care assistant can become important. Psychologist Matte Blanco (1975) noted that in times of emotional stress humans can engage in thinking that involves thinking of an entire category in terms of a subset of that category. Thus in an argument between a nurse and a healthcare assistant they may end up as seeing each other; almost primarily, as representatives of an entire category. Furthermore how the category is structured can depend on arbitrary associations that make up the concept. Work in concept acquisition done by relational frame theorists has shown that our concepts have rich interconnections that are strung together in a somewhat arbitrary manner as a result of our contingent life experiences. Now a health-care assistant will have a string of associations attached to the term Nurse and he may not even be entirely conscious of what these associations contain. However, if in his dispute with the Nurse he more and more thinks of her in terms of the abstract category of Nurse this will mean that he will be thinking of her in terms of an abstract, arbitrary set of associations that he is not aware of. When this occurs, rich interpersonal relationships between the two people can be pushed to the background and people end up thinking of each other in terms of a static set of associations that they have internalized. This can lead to rigid thinking, a decrease in terms of compromise and an inability to understand the person you are talking to as a person.
Furthermore people don’t converse in isolation. These people in the discussion will be operating within a network of other people. And a lot of people will fall under the category of ‘Nurse’ or ‘Health Care Assistant’, and if people start identifying with a particular category then there is a danger that unconscious categorisation combined with humans innate territorial nature will result in interacting in an increasingly territorial manner in their dealings with each other.
Obviously a work-place where people are unconsciously interacting with each other in terms of evolutionary driven emotional behaviour isn’t ideal. The question is whether we can design our groups interactions in ways that can minimize these type of rigid emotional thought processes from infecting group interaction.
Firstly, it is important to note that the abstract rigid structures which can have a structuring and polarizing effect on interactions are multifarious so a variety of different factors will influence workers thinking; ‘race’, ‘class’, ‘attractiveness’ etc will infect thinking. People will implicitly rank people into various different categories and will typically rank the importance of these categories so implicit aligences may shift depending on context. One person may think the ‘Nurse’ ‘Care Staff’ divide is important but something like ‘Class’ may be more important to them so in interactions their implicit rank value system will inform how they form aligences. These factors will have a recursive feedback loop where one person thinks that another person has been disloyal to their group and shifts their attitudes towards that person. This information will spread throughout the community and may again have negative consequences for group interaction.
A useful tool that may help with group interactions is a discovery made by the nobel prize winning economist Elinor Orstrom. She researched how groups managed the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons is a situation where individuals acting independently in their own self interest, act in ways that are bad for the common good. By empirically studying groups that successfully managed to overcome the tragedy of the commons, Orstrom managed to distill out the core rules they were following. Furthermore it has been shown that groups who adopt these rules increase their productivity and harmonious group interaction.
Below we will look at Orstrom’s 8 core design principles for group interaction and see how they can be applied to workplace interaction:
Strong Group Identity and Understanding of Purpose: As we discussed above people interacting can all be grouped into various different categories and these categories can rigify in people’s minds in times of stress and this can cause intense conflicts. However, if the overall group has a strong identity and everyone understands the purpose of the group this can operate like a kind of guiding light that focuses people away from interpersonal conflicts and towards achieving the purpose of the group.
Proportional Equivalents between benefits and costs:
Again conflict can be reduced and people will be less likely to build up lingering resentments if the rationale behind the various different benefits people receive relative to each other is explained in terms of the costs accrued by the people doing the work.
Fair and Inclusive decision making:
People don’t like being dominated. But they do like structure. Talking as a group about what you want to do and the best way of doing it is a great way of developing team spirit. But a clear leader within the discussion is necessary.
Monitoring agreed upon behaviours:
Some structure in place where agreed rules are monitored by independent staff.
Graduated Sanctions:
If work isn’t done direct friendly criticism is necessary with incremental sanctions if work continues to be undone.
Fast and Fair Conflict resolution
Rather than let issues fester management need to step in quickly with ways to minimize disputes.
Local Autonomy;
There needs to be some kind of authority within a group that helps form a common purpose. If the group is a small group within a larger organisation then that small group should have decision making capacities slightly independent of the overall organisation. This gives people a sense of agency and responsibility to the small group they are a part of.
Polycentric Governance: Apply the above seven principles in an attempt to relate collaboratively with other groups that your own group is nested within.
Ostrom’s core design principles have been shown to have great explanatory value in explaining how successful group interaction can be achieved. Her principles show that if a group is organized in a particular way this will select for a type of behaviour that benefits the overall group. The psychological principles which we discussed earlier can result in tensions occurring during times of stress and such psychological stressors can result in people thinking game theoretically in terms of rigid abstract categories. Groups structured according to Orstrom’s core design principles have been empirically demonstrated to have created successful group interaction. Using her core design principles may be a way of successfully avoiding people’s darker psychological nature’s destroying group dynamics.
We saw above how at a large scale societal level there is evidence that group dynamics can result in people’s behaviour switching based on structural features of their group and this can have dramatic effects from wars to workplace disputes. Work such as Ostrom’s can help in designing our groups in more effective manner. But much scientific study is needed to help us create more nurturing groups that people can thrive in.

Constructed World’s, Forms of Life and Intellectual Disabilities.

In his ‘Philosophical Investigations ’ Ludwig Wittgenstein discussed simple language games as a way of exploring the nature of our own language. One of the themes discussed early in the PI was ostensive definitions and how they could be used to teach that a word refers to number, shape, colour, a whole object: e.g. Slab, or whether a word is being used as a demonstrative; this and that. Wittgenstein’s discussion reveals a kind of poverty of stimulus in learning a word through ostension. So if a person points to something and says ‘Blickiri’ it is unclear purely by ostension whether the person is referring to a colour, a shape, an object, a number etc. Wittgenstein notes that we could limit possible interpretations of ‘Blickiri’ if it was prefixed by ‘Is a colour’, ‘Is a number’ etc. However, obviously if the person we are trying to teach by ostensive definitions already understands predicates of our language like ‘Is a colour’, ‘Is a number’ etc they would already understand complex aspects of our language and hence are not being taught from scratch by ostension.
On the picture sketched by the later Wittgenstein we learn our language through our shared form of social life with our peers. Throughout the PI Wittgenstein analyses how words get their meaning; and shows that supposed bearers of linguistic meaning such as private mental images, are not sufficient to the task of providing linguistic meaning. His emphasis on the social determination of meaning, shared practices, and actual linguistic use broke philosophy away from its traditional a priori methodologies. Instead of arguing that concepts MUST have a certain structure, or that we MUST be following certain determinate rules when reasoning, Wittgenstein asked us to look at our practices. This approach if adopted makes philosophy more pragmatic and interested in our actual interactions with the world as opposed to a purely speculative or armchair discipline.
Martin Heidegger’s dense prose and profound sounding claims about the nature of ‘Being’, ‘Language’ and ‘Concealment’, ‘Technology’ etc at a first glance seem to be far removed from the pragmatic spirit of the latter Wittgenstein’s philosophy Furthermore Heidegger’s later philosophy is no more compatible with pragmatism than is the philosophy the early Wittgenstein espoused in his ‘Tractatus’. However, it has often been noted that aspects of ‘Being and Time’ with its focus on everyday life and our concernful engagement with the world, and the role of implicit awareness, and embodied engagement with the world is also subject to a pragmatic interpretation.
While Heidegger argued against a psychological interpretation of his work it has nonetheless been used a great deal in both psychology and psychoanalysis. Robert Stolorow and George Atwood are excellent scholars of Heidegger and psychoanalysts who have managed to combine Heidegger with Freud. Their work has greatly enriched some Freudian concepts and has helped in understanding the lived world of people suffering from psychosis. Clinical psychologist Louis Sass has also managed to combine the insights of the later Wittgenstein and Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ as a way of understanding the lived experience of people with Schizophrenia.
In this blog-post I want to discuss the social world that is partially constructed for people with severe intellectual disabilities. My aim is not provide a scholarly discussion of the philosophy of either Wittgenstein or Heidegger, rather I will use some of their concepts to help me elucidate the world of people with severe intellectual disabilities is partially socially constructed. In an earlier Blog-post ‘Radical Interpretation and Intellectual disability: The principle of Charity and The Typical Mind Fallacy’ I tried to explore some of the challenges of interpreting how people with various forms of intellectual disability experience the world. In that work I called for more descriptive work similar to the work Oliver Sacks has done on people with neurological disorders to help health care workers understand the subjective world of the people they care for. The emphasis in that blog post was on the subjective world of people with intellectual disabilities and the challenges of interpreting it. In a later blog-post ‘Some Behavioural Techniques and The Idea of a Blank Slate’ I briefly discussed some behavioural techniques that are useful for dealing with people with intellectual disabilities who engage in challenging behaviour. Here the focus was on objective features of the environment and behavioural techniques that reduce the probability of a particular behaviour occurring. In this blog-post I aim to discuss an intermediate state: the lived world of people with intellectual disabilities. Here my focus will be on intersubjective communication, and the social world that people with intellectual disabilities sometimes live in.
In the 1960s when a child was discovered to have an intellectual disability a lot of the time the child would be immediately abandoned to state care. Things now a days are much different, people in general have a greater grasp of what having a child with intellectual disabilities actually entails. The stigma once associated with having a child with intellectual disabilities has now been greatly eroded. Furthermore there is much greater social support for the parents of a child with intellectual disabilities than was previously available. This isn’t to imply that things are perfect, this is obviously far from the case, many challenges still exist. My point is merely that things have to a small degree improved.
When discussing the social world of a child with severe intellectual disabilities my focus will be on their social world in the institute they live in. As I mentioned earlier children are not automatically placed in care when they have severe intellectual disabilities . There is a great emphasis the importance of the child staying with his family and being included in the wider community. Nonetheless caring for a child with severe intellectual disabilities, while perhaps caring for other children, is an extremely difficult job emotionally. To help parents to provide the best care possible respite services are offered to them where their child with severe intellectual disabilities can be cared for by community house which specialises in respite care.
Depending on level of care required by the child and the family circumstances respite care can begin at any age but it is typically provided for children as they get older and harder to manage. On average people will enter respite care from the age of 5 or 6. Like all children a child with intellectual disabilities is thrown into a pre-prepared world upon birth. A child is born into a family drama ; the parents give the child his name and typically have a room ready for the child along with fantasies about who the child will become. The child upon birth is immediately situated in a narrative created by the parents about the nature of the family and its relation to the external world. Wittgenstein correctly notes that to come to speak a language is to be immersed in a particular form of life. Different communities, societies and families have different forms of life. The new born child who is thrown into the world has to try and learn the various criss-crossing language games of the family or society they are born into. Parents of a child with intellectual disabilities often talk about a process of mourning that they undergo when they realise that the child they had imagined will never exist. They need to undergo this process of mourning their idealised child in order to get to know their actual child with his various impairments. Parents claim that eventually they just see their child as person and don’t see the intellectual disability after a while. However there is a period where the child is not living up to the unconscious fantasy that the parents had created of him. It is difficult to speak in general about the experiences of children with intellectual disabilities as different disorders such as Williams Syndrome, Downs Syndrome, etc will result different difficulties in processing emotions, communicating etc. Furthermore, even people with particular syndromes will differ in their abilities and temperaments. So there is no one fit all criterion we can provide which will describe the challenges they will face growing up within their family these matters will have to be evaluated on a case by case basis. But while it is essential to take note of the child’s intellectual disability and particular temperament, it is just as important to note the form of life that one is to some degree imposing on the child and whether that form of life is suitable for the particular competencies of the child in question.
When the child is brought into respite care for the first time he will again be entering a prepared world where the staff working there will have a working theory of who the child is. Some of the staff (typically the nurse in charge) will have met the family to discuss the child and will be introduced to the child. The family will typically try to prepare the child for respite by telling him where he is going, showing him pictures of where he is going to respite, and bringing the child to visit the respite unit before his respite begins. The staff will prepare by reading files from psychologists, social workers, GP, reports from the child’s school and reports from the child’s parents/guardians etc.
Human nature being what it is; staff will have formed a picture of the child before he arrives. Evidence from the files and reports will help the staff form a picture of the child who is coming into respite. Staff upon hearing the nature of the disability, and facts about the child’s behaviour may view the child in comparison to various other people with intellectual disabilities they have looked after. Preparations for the child’s arrival will take place in various ways. One key issue will be what children is the child suitable to be placed with? Various social factors will have to be considered, if the child is prone to imitative behaviour placing him with other children who can be violent or engage in self injurious behaviour is not a good idea. Likewise if the child is finds noise intolerable then placing him with children who like to make loud vocalisations may not be a good idea.
When the child arrives into respite care for the first time, just like when he is brought home from the hospital, or his first day in school he is arriving at a drama prepared for him. The child is being cared for by nurses and care staff with fixed roles, the staff will have an idea of who the child is and how he will behave, and have prepared activities and environment accordingly.
Occupational Therapists have long recognised that a huge part of what makes us who we are is what we do. Our daily activities are a large part of who we are. We are not disembodied Cartesian egos, on the contrary we are embodied creatures immersed in and engaged with our world. Because of Heidegger’s focus on ‘Being-in-the World’ and his detailed phenomenological analysis of our behaviour as we engage with our lived daily experience a lot of occupational therapists and nurses incorporate aspects of Heidegger’s phenomenology in their research . The importance of understanding everyday activities and how people find them meaningful in their daily activities lives cannot be stressed too much when considering the child entering respite care.
As we have already noted the child enters his new world with a place prepared for him by staff. Some children are verbal and some are non-verbal nonetheless it is important for staff and the new child to establish functional communication. If the child is non-verbal he will indicate what he wants by his behaviour, he will try to take what he wants, will get upset and may engage in self injurious behaviour if he cannot obtain what he wants. Even with children with severe intellectual disabilities can be taught to use at least some degree of symbolic communication. The PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) which involves the child being given a book full of pictures placed on a page with Velcro is a useful system in this sense. Children who may not be able to use PECS to form actual sentences can still learn to use the pictures to communicate what they want. Lamh which is a simple form of sign language which lacks the complex syntax of ordinary sign language is also an effective way of communicating with others. However if children cannot master these devices to any degree staff will need to interpret the behaviour of the child e.g. crying is a form of communication that something is wrong. And the staff has to use whatever background knowledge he has of the child to discover what the child is.
The phenomenological approach I have sketched involves treating the child with intellectual disabilities as an intentional agent who engaged in his world and is trying to find meaning in a social world partly created by those who care for him. This approach recommends that those whose responsibility it is to look after these children with ensuring that the social environment is structured in such a manner that it is as easy as possible for the child to immerse himself in the shared form of life of his peers.
There has been some regrettable disputes about the importance of phenomenological research in occupational therapy and nursing. Some proponents of its use have claimed that the phenomenological approach is an alternative to scientific third-person accounts. This has lead to a backlash where some theorists have attacked phenomenological approaches to explore the lived world of people who are ill or have a severe intellectual disability.
The approach of treating phenomenology as an alternative to scientific approaches is radically wrong-headed. When we are trying to understand the lived world of a person with intellectual disabilities we are adopting personal level explanations of their behaviour. This is how we interact with people in ordinary lived experience. When I arrange to meet a friend for a coffee, I will use this personal level mode of explanation. Thus I will use propositional attitude level type reasoning. I will assume that because my friend knows I will be in a particular coffee shop at a particular time, and he wants to meet me, has agreed to meet me at said time, and knows how to get to the shop, he will therefore meet me unless something happens to prevent him from meeting me. We use this personal level type explanation all of the time in our interactions with others and it works quite well . When dealing with children who have an intellectual disability we are dealing with persons some of whom are perfectly healthy aside from whatever developmental delay they have. Personal level interpretations are both appropriate and useful. Adopting a phenomenological approach is to interpret the behaviour of the child interms of personal level ascriptions though careful phenomenological analysis will sometimes reveal a more detailed picture than our ordinary folk intuitions do. This is not an alternative to scientific analysis of behaviour. It is just an approach which is useful and humane.
If we are trying to teach a child better functional communication a lot of the time behavioural techniques which occur at the sub-personal levels are superior to personal level techniques. Likewise if we are dealing with severe challenging behaviour, a combination of medical treatment and behavioural analysis usually works much better than any treatment at the personal level. But all of this is true of people who do not suffer from intellectual disabilities. A person with no intellectual disabilities may suffer a bout of depression and treatment interms of medicine may work better than personal level psychotherapy. Here we are using a sub-personal level explanation to help the person. The same will be true if a person with or without Intellectual disabilities gets sick with MS or any other disorder.
Personal level ways of interpreting people with intellectual disabilities are not an alternative to scientific explanations they are just standard ways of understanding how a person finds meaning in the world and particular socio-linguistic community they find themselves in. As always we can shift our levels of explanation as pragmatically needed. And leave the question of whether propositional level explanations will eventually be eliminated to future science to decide.

Zizek, and Brandom on Agency and Responsibility: Part 1

Philosopher Robert Brandom one of the most respected contemporary living thinkers in the analytic tradition has recently written a book on Hegel called ‘A Spirit of Trust’. His book is extremely challenging; as well as the obvious difficulty of interpreting Hegel’s work, Brandom explicates Hegel in terms of the technical work of analytic philosophers such as Frege, Wittgenstein, Kripke, Sellars etc.  Having one of the giants of analytic philosophy engage with Hegel’s work in book length detail is important for the discipline. One of the selling points of Analytic Philosophy at its inception, was its move away from purported Hegelian obscurity. Bertrand Russell, for example, argued that the new logic being developed by Frege and Russell would put philosophy on a scientific path that made Hegelian philosophy look antiquated. The fact that over a hundred years after Russell dismissed Hegel as an antiquated thinker, philosophers in the discipline Russell helped found are still trying to come to terms with Hegel’s work makes Russell’s dismissal of Hegel look hopelessly naïve.

Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty argued that the analytic philosophy championed by Russell was a futile attempt of philosophy to remain in its Kantian phase and to cordon off a workspace for philosophers that couldn’t be gobbled up by the natural sciences. For Rorty, analytic philosophy had yet to move beyond its Kantian phase into its Hegelian phase. Since Rorty’s death it is fair to say that Hegel still isn’t a central figure. Philosophers like Robert Pippin and Robert Brandom take Hegel very seriously but overall Hegel is still a marginal figure in analytic philosophy.

In his blurb for Brandom’s book James Conant hoped that ‘A Spirit of Trust’ would do for Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ what Strawson’s ‘The Bounds of Sense’ did for Kant’s ‘A Critique of Pure Reason’ in Analytic Philosophy. It is hard to believe that Brandom’s book will have a similar impact. Strawson’s book served as a short clear expression of Kant’s ideas that translated Kant into the language of analytic philosophy. Brandom’s work is almost as complex and dense Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and to grasp his interpretation of Hegel one would need to be intimately familiar with technical work in the philosophy of language. It is doubtful that Brandom’s book will be read by many people other than those already interested in Brandom’s work or analytic philosophers who are already familiar with Hegel’s work.

One thing that Brandom’s book may have in common with Strawson’s ‘The Bounds of Sense’ will be that a lot of theorists from the Continental Philosophy tradition will dismiss it as another attempt by an analytic philosopher to domesticate radical ideas of a great thinker. Slavoj Zizek a world-famous philosopher in the Continental tradition has written on Hegel in various different places culminating in his massive book ‘Less Than Nothing: Hegel and The Shadow of Dialectical Materialism’ (2013). Zizek’s take on Hegel is every bit as challenging as Brandom’s. Zizek interprets Hegel through the lens of Lacan, Marx, de Saussure, Heidegger, Freud etc. So understanding Zizek’s take on Hegel demands as much of a grasp of Continental philosophy, as understanding Brandom’s take demands a good grasp of the intricacies of Analytic Philosophy. In fact reading Zizek and Brandom’s different takes on Hegel one could be forgiven for thinking of Hegel as a kind of elaborate Rorschach test onto which people project their own idiosyncratic obsessions.

Zizek read an early draft of Brandom’s ‘A Spirit of Trust’ and accused him of attempting to normalize Hegel and to ignore the wilder aspects of Hegel’s philosophy. Zizek’s paper ‘In Defence of Hegel’s Madness’ (2015) criticises some of Brandom’s takes on Hegel. It is worth evaluating these claims of Zizek’s as his criticisms reveal some differences in argumentative style between analytic and continental philosophers. Zizek offered three primary criticisms of Brandom’s take on Hegel:

  • The first strand of his criticism of Brandom is an obscure criticism of Brandom’s treatment of determinate negation and mediation. Zizek’s uses the work of linguist Saussure to criticise Brandom’s understanding of the nature of negation and mediation. And chastises Brandom for reducing absolute idealism to a semantic thesis.
  • The second strand of Zizek’s criticism focuses on Brandom’s bent stick example of negation revealing a contradiction between our representation and the thing in-itself. Zizek chastises Brandom for misrepresenting Hegel. While Brandom thinks that contradictory things exist in our incompatible representations of the object not the object itself; Zizek parses Hegel as arguing that contradictions can exist in nature: “Does Brandom not do here the exact opposite of Hegel? When Hegel confronts an epistemological inconsistency or “contradiction” which appears as an obstacle to our access to the obstacle itself (if we have incompatible notions of an object they cannot all be true), Hegel resolves this dilemma by way of transposing what appears as an epistemological obstacle into an ontological feature, a “contradiction” in the thing it self. Brandom, on the contrary, resolves an ontological inconsistency by way of transposing it into epistemological illusion/inadequacy, so that reality is saved from contradiction.” ( Zizek ‘In Defence of Hegel’s Madness’ p. 794)
  • The third strand of Zizek’s criticism focuses on Brandom’s take on agency and responsibility. “Brandom and Hegel are here opposed in a way which is far from concerning just an accent: Brandom asserts the transcendental primacy of trust which is always -already presupposed by any reductionist-suspicious ironic attitude, while Hegel’s entire effort goes into explaining why trust needs the detour through irony and suspicion to assert itself-it cannot stand on its own…This is the price that both Pippin and Brandom pay for their “renormalization” of Hegel as a thinker of discursive recognition: a regression into Kantian dualism of the domain/level of empirical reality and the separate normative domain of rational argumentation. Whatever Hegel is, such dualism is incompatible with his thought.” (ibid pp.804-809)


It would be beyond the scope of this blog-post to consider all of Zizek’s criticisms of Brandom so in this blog-post I will consider what I take to be one of Zizek’s primary criticisms; his claim that Brandom’s view on agency and responsibility is radically wrong. I will return to Zizek’s other criticisms in later blog-posts.

One of Zizek’s major criticisms of Brandom related to how Brandom handled unintended consequences.  Brandom used a toy model to discuss a case where a person could cause a disaster without thereby being responsible for the disaster. Brandom gives an example of a person pressing a doorbell with the intention of getting the attention of the occupant of the house. Unknownst to person who pressed the bell it has been rigged to explode when the bell is pressed. By pressing the bell person x inadvertently killed the occupant of the house. On Brandom’s understanding of the above toy model we couldn’t hold the person responsible for the death of the occupant although by pressing the bell the person is indeed part of the cause of the occupant being killed.

Brandom interpreted Hegel’s views on agency and responsibility under the guise of Donald Davidson’s philosophy of action. He broke Davidson’s theory of action up into five different elements.

  • One and the same event can be described or specified in many ways.
  • One important way of identifying or singling out an event is in terms of its causal consequences.

Moving ones finger and pressing the doorbell and causing the bomb to go off can be classed as one event because of its causal consequences.

  • Some, but not all, of the descriptions of an action may be privileged in that they are the ones under which it is intentional.

Potential descriptions of an event expand with the passage of time; Davidson calls this fact “the accordion effect” (ibid p. 388).


  • What makes an event, performance, or process an action, something done, is that it is intentional under some description.

Pressing the doorbell was intentional, while causing the bomb to go off wasn’t intentional. Setting off the bomb was something that was done, though it wasn’t intentional under that description it was intentional under other descriptions e.g. ringing the doorbell. The performance is an action under all its descriptions and specifications, including all the distant, unforeseeable, consequential ones that come in under the accordion principle. But what makes it an action is that it was intentional under some specifications. (ibid p. 388)


  • What distinguishes some descriptions as ones under which a performance was intentional is their role as conclusions in processes of practical reasoning. (Brandom ‘A Spirit of Trust’ pp. 387-389)

Pressing the doorbell was something the agent had a reason to do, provided by ends purposes or goals he endorsed, commitments he acknowledged, or values he embraced. Those reasons in the form of ends, purposes, goals, commitments, or values provide premises for potential pieces of practical reasoning justifying the practical conclusion that he ought to bring about an event satisfying a description such as pressing the doorbell but not setting off a bomb.( ibid p. 389)

Zizek’s response to Brandom’s toy model is firstly to note that Brandom hasn’t ruled out unconscious motivations for the person pushing the bell ( In Defence of Hegel’s Madness p. 799). This is a truly bizarre thing for Zizek to ask for. Brandom is using a thought experiment to illustrate a case where a person accidently causes the death of the occupant while not being plausibly responsible for the death. Instead of speculating on the purported unconscious motivations of a subject of a thought experiment Zizek would be better served by constructing a thought experiment of his own to illustrate what he thinks Brandom misses.

It is hard to know what type of thought experiment Zizek could appeal to demonstrate the inappropriateness of Brandom’s toy model. Suppose we added into the model that the guy who pressed the doorbell had a history with the occupant. The occupant had stolen guy x’s girlfriend, had gotten jobs x had applied for, held views that guy x felt were heinous. Here we could speculate that guy x unconsciously resented the occupant. But even if we did speculate that guy x hated the occupant; this doesn’t do much work in the thought experiment. The point of the thought experiment was that by fiat guy x pressed the button and didn’t know it was connected to a bomb. Therefore, even though he was causally implicated in the bomb going off, he wasn’t responsible for the death. Even if we add to our thought experiment that the guy unconsciously hated the occupant; we still have no evidence that he is responsible for the death.

Now Zizek can change the stipulation that guy x knew nothing about the bomb being connected; but doing so is creating a new thought experiment it does nothing to engage with the intuitions pumped by the original thought experiment. Sometimes in a thought experiment adding more detail makes the intuitions being pumped less clear and require further thought. But Zizek’s argument that we should consider unconscious motivation adds nothing to the thought experiment and leaves the intuitions that Brandom was trying to pump entirely untouched.

Aside from Zizek’s pointless use of unconscious motivations to interpret Brandom’s thought experiment he also makes another criticism. His second criticism is that the example is too contrived and unrealistic to be instructive. A toy model is useful in demonstrating that a person x could cause a state of affairs without being responsible for it. Nonetheless, a perfectly legitimate criticism is that outside of these idealized thought experiments things are more complex and hence the toy models are largely irrelevant to actual lived reality.

Now this is a complex topic. Idealization is a vital tool in the hard sciences. Physics, which is by far and away the most successful science uses idealizations all of the time (point masses, centre of gravity etc), and it would be considered a poor criticism of physics to say that their idealizations simplify reality; that is precisely their point to help us construct tractable models. Using an analogy from physics one could argue that Zizek criticising Brandom using toy models is as silly as criticising Einstein or Newton for using models.

However, I don’t think that this analogy holds. Firstly, philosophers have been using toy models (idealizations) for centuries and haven’t necessarily been successful in solving their problems. It would be poor practice for philosophers to try to piggyback off the success of physics in solving their problems using idealizations, to assert that philosophers are always justified in using idealizations despite not having a comparable level of success. Idealizations haven’t paid their way in philosophy in the way they have in physics. Secondly, and more importantly, while Idealizations have paid their way in science; so have the plucky critics who pointed out the unrealistic aspect of the idealizations noting the various aspects of reality they don’t explain. Pointing out the weakness and limitations of various toy models has been a spur for scientific progress since the inception of the scientific method. In this sense I think Zizek is justified in criticizing Brandom for using overly simplistic toy models.

Zizek offers us a different thought experiment to help us think about the case of unintended consequences. Zizek asks us to consider the case of a person who believes in Marxist philosophy and who thinks it will bring about a better world; such a person would never admit to wanting the horrors of Stalinism to have occurred. But nonetheless there is a clear sense in which it wouldn’t be absurd to hold them responsible for the horrors of Stalinism. There was a sense in which the horrors were implicit in the philosophy. There is a perfectly legitimate sense in which one could claim that despite the person not intending x the person is somewhat responsible for the occurrence of x.

So here we have two competing thought experiments which from a logical point of view aren’t at odds. We could say that in thought experiment 1 the person caused the event but isn’t responsible for it, while in thought experiment 2 the person ( didn’t really cause the event), but bears some responsibility for supporting the philosophy that led to the event.

Given that Zizek’s thought experiment doesn’t refute Brandom’s what was his point in using it? The obvious answer is that in real life we don’t ever have a clear-cut answer to how to attribute responsibility. Lived reality is ambiguous between reasons and causes. For this reason, Brandom’s thought experiment can be dismissed as an unrealistic example which has little relation to lived reality.

Other examples could be produced to illustrate Zizek’s point. In his recent book ‘The Deep History of Ourselves’ neuroscientist Joe LeDoux has argued that we are only really justified in attributing conscious states of fear to linguistic creatures such as ourselves who have a sufficiently structured neocortex.  Le Doux argues that when we see animals such as rats engage in fear behaviours we should be sceptical of interpreting these behaviours as evidence of conscious states. Le Doux’s argument is sophisticated and draws on mountains of empirical data to support his claims. He also goes out of his way to argue that such a philosophy of animal cognition shouldn’t be used to justify animal cruelty.

“Just because animals may not suffer the way we do does not mean that they do not experience some kind of distress and discomfort, and suffer from body injury or illness in their own way. My position should therefore in no way be used as a rationale for torture, abuse, or mistreatment of animals.” (Le Doux ‘A Brief History of Ourselves’ p. 331)

Imagine though that Le Doux’s philosophy caught on and was used to justify treating animals even more cruelly than is practiced today. There is a defensible sense where we could treat Le Doux as somewhat responsible for this cruelty if it could be shown that say there was a spike in animal cruelty following his philosophy of consciousness being adopted. This responsibility would exist even though Le Doux didn’t want such cruelty to occur. The responsibility would be mitigated by his explicit claim that people shouldn’t use his theories as a justification for animal cruelty. However; if it could be shown that his views on animal consciousness being adopted did lead to a spike in animal cruelty then we could be justified in holding him somewhat responsible. Now it is highly unlikely that any animal cruelty will occur as a result of theoretical issues in the neuroscience of consciousness. Nonetheless the bare possibility is another example of the type of responsibility that Zizek thinks is important to think about.

Another example of people being held responsible for behaviour they didn’t explicitly want to happen is in the area of exploitation being used to keep the capitalist machinery running. As privileged citizens of a Western capitalist society we are beneficiaries of a system that exploits countries all over the planet. In being willing participants in a Capitalist society we are somewhat responsible for sweat shops, Oil wars etc.

Cases like the committed Marxist’s responsibility for the terrors of Stalin, the scientists responsibility for the application of their theories, or the citizen of a western Capitalist societies responsibilities for international exploitation are far more interesting and instructive than Brandom’s toy model.

We saw above that Zizek criticized Brandom for not considering unconscious motivations in his toy model. As I noted the objection made little sense as the model was simply being used as a tool to analyse actions and events. When we discuss more real realistic cases, like the case of the committed Marxists, things become more complicated. Here, we cannot rule out of our analysis unconscious motivations influencing the behaviour of the communist, and these motivations can be used to judge the degree to which we can hold the person responsible for the horrors of Stalinism.

There is a school of thought which Brandom dismisses as the hermeneutics of suspicion. The primary proponents of this school are the likes of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, etc. In this school of thought a person may verbally subscribe to a particular philosophical position, they may justify it by reasons, but ultimately the reasons they use are a sham. To give a cliched example, in the Freudian tradition there is a mode of interpretation that involves questioning the motivation of the critics. Thus a critic may argue against Freud on the grounds that there isn’t sufficient evidence to support his claims about the status of the unconscious. However, a Freudian would interpret these arguments by applying Freudian theory. Thus, they could argue that Freud is an authoritative father figure, and that as children the critics primary authority figure was their dad. And our psychoanalyst could argue that when a critic attacks Freud they are really unconsciously attacking their own father and not Freud himself.

This Freudian approach of attacking the motives of critics is rightly criticised for question begging against their critics. Nonetheless, the approach is still pretty common and isn’t just restricted to Freudians; Marxists, Nietzsche, Evolutionary Psychologists also use such hermeneutics of suspicion. A common thread in Evolutionary Psychologists is to dismiss arguments from theorists on the left about social justice as merely unconscious forms of social signalling to ones peers.

Brandom discusses the hermeneutics of suspicion in relation to normative responsibility. He makes a distinction between local attempts at using the hermeneutics of suspicion and global attempts. A good example of a local attempt to apply the hermeneutics of suspicion would when a teenager begins to reflect on the fact he is a Christian because everyone in his culture is. But if he was born in a different community he would have become a Buddhist or a Muslim. This teenager may reflect that his reasons for believing in God are just post-hoc rationalisations to justify his cultural indoctrination. Proponents of global hermeneutics of suspicion would argue that all modes of reasoning can explained away in terms of causal sequences such as childhood experiences, unconscious evolutionary signalling etc of which we are unaware. For Brandom the hermeneutics of suspicion is an attempt to reduce normative reason giving explanations to causal explanations. Brandom argues that explanations that we only believe proposition x because of certain childhood experiences, reduces our reasons to the status of causal sequences. But he doesn’t think that global hermeneutics of suspicion holds up to critical scrutiny. His argument is the familiar one that any attempt to explain away reasons entirely in terms of causes is self-refuting; as if the proponent of the thesis really believed the thesis he would have no argument for it. His own thesis would be subject to similar unmasking so couldn’t be taken too seriously. In short if you are a global sceptic about reasons you cannot appeal to reasons to make your case.

Brandom’s discussion of the hermeneutics of suspicion is a key point of difference between Zizek and Brandom’s interpretation of Hegel. However to analyse the debate further would require a discussion of the philosophy of history. In the next blog-post I will evaluate how both Zizek and Brandom’s different takes on agency effect their interpretations of the philosophy of history, Hegel, and the nature of responsibility.

The Joker Movie: A brief discussion

The new Joker film has polarized its audience. To some it is a classic, and Phoenix deserves an award for his performance. For others the movie is an empty shell with nothing interesting to say. From what I have seen on Twitter a lot the commentary on the film seems to be along ideological lines. The director of the film Todd Philips; has recently complained about the far left’s supposed PC agenda ruining contemporary comedy. Philips complaints about PC culture haven’t endeared him to some journalists on the left and true to form lefty papers from the Guardian to online publications like i09 have panned the film.

Obviously journalists who disliked the film aren’t necessarily doing so because they disliked a few comments made by its director. It is more likely that the film’s theme and structure triggered certain reactions in the writers. It isn’t my job here to critique various different interpretations of the movie that others have had. Rather, I will here offer a few scattered thoughts on different aspects of the film.

The Joker is an iconic character who first appeared in the DC world in a 1940 Batman comic. The Joker was inspired by a 1928 film ‘The Man who Laughs’, which was about a man with a weird deformation which makes him permanently smile in an uncanny manner. In the DC universe the Joker has been portrayed in a variety of different ways over the 80 years since his creation. On screen the Joker has gone from being a campy character in the 1960 tv show, to the gangster Joker of the 1989 Batman Movie. To many fans, the most accurate on screen depiction of the Joker was in the early 90’s animated series of Batman, when the joker was voiced by Mark Hamill.

But in the popular imagination the Joker is Heath Ledger. Ledger played the Joker in the 2008 film ‘The Dark Knight’. While the film was being edited and prepared for release Ledger died of a drug overdose. The Dark Knight was a brilliant film and Ledger’s performance was superb. Ledger’s Joker had an ambiguous back story (the Joker told many mutually inconsistent stories about how he was scarred), his behaviour was portrayed as without reason. He was just a crazed mad man who liked to destroy things. Ledger’s fantastic performance, the film being excellent, and the Joker being genuinely unnerving would have been enough to cement Ledger as THE joker in most people’s mind. But his dying before the film was released added even more to the legend of his Joker.

But Ledger’s performance and its popularity presented a problem for those who owned the Batman franchise; how to create a new Joker.  When the TV show Gotham (a show exploring Batman’s childhood) began in 2014 it slowly introduced famous criminals such as the Penguin and the Riddler. But the Joker was conspicuous by his absence.  Slowly they began introducing a series different characters any of which could be a childhood Joker. This was a nice move. It meant that like Ledger’s Joker they were keeping his back story ambiguous. However, eventually the settled on a Joker played by Camron Monaghan. Monaghan is an excellent actor and his Joker laugh was terrifying. But eventually they overworked the story and in the last season the Joker was like a crude caricature of Ledger’s Joker. The 2016 film ‘Suicide Squad’ had Jared Leto playing the Joker and the whole thing was unbearably cringy. Try as they did to make the Joker edgy his entire portrayal was a disaster.

While Ledger’s Joker worked because of the ambiguity of the Joker’s backstory the new movie embraces his back story, using it as a way of describing how he ultimately became who he is. The overall theme of the film is of a lonely isolated man who suffered childhood abuse, who suffers from mental health issues and eventually kills a bunch of people and becomes a cult like sensation to thousands of people.

Given that the film is a backstory to a popular bad guy in a super-hero franchise one wonders why it has elicited such a polarizing response. The response isn’t your typical one where most people pan a film and some like it or where a film is greeted with general indifference; journalists seem to care about this film and are debating whether it is a work of genius or banal rubbish.

I enjoyed the film and thought Phoenix’s performance was brilliant. I would love if they built the DC universe around the movie; instead of the dross it has pushed out in the last few years (yes Justice League I am talking to you). But I certainly don’t consider the film some kind of movie classic in the way a lot fanboys appear to.

So, if we assume I am right, (I usually am 😉) that it’s a very good but not great movie. We must wonder why all the fuss? There are plenty of criticisms that one could make about the movie. Firstly, it is a cliché to portray the Joker as a mentally ill loner. Furthermore this cliché pushes a popular mythology about mentally ill people as being dangerously violent people. The truth is that mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of crimes than perpetuators. So a critic could argue that the film pushes a dangerous stereotype that could result of further stigmatising the mentally ill.

But this criticism couldn’t be why people feel so strongly about the film. The cliché about the mentally ill and violence is used in a lot of films and doesn’t usually result in such strong reactions.

Another criticism is that the films portrayal of the Joker is an attempt to humanise a monster, and these attempts are usually directed towards white male criminals. In her ‘Down Girl’ Kate Manne recounts in detail cases of where women have been raped or subject to domestic violence of various kinds. In her detailed analysis she demonstrates in case after case, white rapists are treated as victims by the press. People bemoan the ruined life of the poor white guy who was always a good student and had a bright future ahead of him only for it all to be ruined by one tragic mistake. In these narratives the rapist becomes the tragic victim and the person who is raped almost disappears from the story. Manne calls this misplaced sympathy ‘Himpathy’[1] .

So it is possible that some critics’ problems with The Joker movie revolve around its misplaced himpathy for a brutal murderer because of his whiteness and maleness. Indeed some of the criticisms I have seen on Twitter do have this tone. Personally I didn’t think the Joker was portrayed that sympathetically; it was possible to feel pity for him at times; e.g. for his general awkwardness and the childhood abuse he suffered. But I didn’t get a sense in the film that the Joker was anything other than a psychopath; and his past doesn’t justify his behaviour at all.

The real reason that the Joker freaked out a lot of journalists was that his cult following is something we see over and over today. The Joker as portrayed in the film stands for nothing and is killing all around him based on delusions and repressed anger. Yet despite him being an inane man with nothing coherent to offer he has inspired a mass following of idiots who have little problem with killing innocent people. The Joker is set in the seventies, cults surrounding mad man were  more contained in the seventies. But with the internet and social media such as Twitter, YouTube etc cults are difficult to contain. Today disenfranchised people are flocking in their millions to sociopaths like Tommy Robinson, Jordan Peterson and Stefan Molyneux and being deluded with various different conspiracy theories.

The Joker is an uncomfortable reminder as to how easy people are riled up by idiotic clowns with no message other than anger. In the Joker film we get to see Bruce Wayne’s father as a thoroughly unsympathetic character and part of a vast network of powerful people who don’t care about the disenfranchised masses. Rather than focusing on unhinged psychopaths like the Joker perhaps we should be focused on uncaring people in power. Perhaps we should try to create a more nurturing society and hence decrease the people who will be led by clowns into a homicidal rages.

There has been speculation that Todd Philip’s comments about PC culture was a cynical attempt to sell the film to Incels who may relate to the Joker. Some have argued that they want to market the Joker to incels in the same way the marketed female Ghost-Busters to SJW types. I wonder whether liberal critics of the film with this incel interpretation in mind may have unconsciously viewed the Joker film as a metaphor for the dangers of cults lead by dangerous clowns and whether this may have led to their overly emotional interpretation of a movie about a superhero badguy.

(disclaimer I am just spit balling here and most of what I have said is probably false 😀 )


[1] In a blog-post I wrote last year I discussed the case of Bridget Cleary a woman who was murdered by her husband in Ireland over a hundred years ago. A lot of scholary treatment of that case involves Himpathy for the murderer

Frege, his Dad and the Eternal

“By Heaven, can we be ready to believe that the absolutely real has no share in movement, life soul or wisdom? That it does not live or think, but in solemn holiness, unpossessed of mind, stands entirely at rest? That would be a dreadful thing to admit.” (Plato ‘Parmenides’ p.248e)

Philosopher and biographer Ray Monk has written some of the most interesting and informative biographies about a variety of philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein etc. Monk argues that some philosopher’s lives are so dull as to resist any interesting biographies being written about them. Monk singles out philosophers such as Frege and Kant as being people who are so boring as to make a biography of them pointless.

Frege’s life certainly seems to bear out Monk’s negative impressions.  By all accounts Frege was a dull man whose life (outside of his theoretical work), seemed to be very dreary. He was a hard working maths student, who turned out into a hard working associate professor, he had an unremarkable marriage, had one adopted child and eventually he grew old and died. My little summary of Frege’s life may seem harsh, but the biographies written about him reveal little else about the man. There is very little documentary evidence of any kind of personality; no funny anecdotes, no interesting quirks in his personality; just lots of hard work in mathematics.

However as the philosopher Richard Rorty noted, one of the lessons we should have taken from Freud was that there were no truly dull people. If you get anyone on the bench you will discover unconscious motivations, bizarre desires, idiosyncratic behaviours etc. Here is Rorty’s gloss on dull people:

“But there is a difference between Nietzsche and Freud which my description of Freud’s view of the moral man as decent but dull doesn’t capture. Freud shows us that if we look inside the bien-pensant conformist, if we get him on the couch, we find that he was only dull on the surface. For Freud, nobody is dull through and through, for there is no such thing as a dull unconscious. What makes Freud more useful and more plausible than Nietzsche is that he does not relegate the vast majority of humanity to the status of dying animals. For Freud’s account of unconscious fantasy shows us how to see every human life as a poem… (Rorty ‘Contingency, Irony and Solidarity’ p. 35)


One doesn’t have to entirely buy into Freud’s particular views on psychology to agree with the general claim. It is surely indisputable that all humans have day-dreams, fantasies, unconscious beliefs governing their behaviour which they don’t explicitly state. Presumably Frege had sexual fantasies, presumably he had fears about death, growing old, he had passionate hates and passionate loves. Unfortunately there is little documentary evidence indicating any of these subjective states of the great man. In his writing he practically never mentions his emotional world. His output is almost entirely dedicated to his views on the foundations of mathematics. The only time Frege the man is seen in his writing is in a diary written later in his life where he expresses some extreme right wing thoughts. Aside from that Frege the man never emerges in his output of writing.

Frege famously argued against the idea that our grasp of mathematics could be explained entirely interms of our own idiosyncratic psychology. For Frege, mathematics was about an objective Platonic realm, the abstract objects mathematics picks out exist independently of any psychological states. Frege even argued that meaning should not be explained interms of idiosyncratic subjective ideas but instead meanings should be cashed out interms of abstract entities.

As every first year philosophy student knows philosophers such as Locke, Hume, Descartes etc cashed out the meaning of our words interms of their reference to ideas in our mind. Thus the meaning of our word ‘Cat’ would be cashed out in terms of our subjective idea (roughly a mental image) of a Cat. On this representationalist picture when we see a cat in our environment we are seeing it via a mental representation of the cat, and when we think about a cat we conjure up less vivid images of the cat. The meaning of the word ‘cat’ is derived from a combination of our images we conjure up when we think of a cat and the mental representations we use when we interpreting cat like stimuli in our environment.

Frege rejected this view of meaning. Firstly he rejected the view that our words picked out mental representations; for Frege our words picked out mind independent objects[1]. Our words reference was a mind independent object {which he parsed as either the true or the flase}, and the reference was mediated by an abstract sense. In his infamous example two people could be referring to the same object (Venus), but they could pick out that object via different modes of presentations. One person could refer to Venus via a sense {the morning star}, while another person could refer to Venus via the sense {the evening star}, neither person might know that { the Morning Star and The Evening Star both refer to the same thing i.e. Venus}.

Thus far people may find the above unproblematic. Our words pick out mind independent entities via our senses (which can be cashed out interms of descriptions instead of mental images), the overall picture seems a sensible one. However, natural as the above picture is, it is important to not be misled, Frege was explicit on the point that the senses which picked out references shouldn’t be understood as psychological states. Senses are objective modes of presentations they aren’t to be equated with psychological states or ideas.

Tyler Burge correctly argued that Frege claimed that there were three different functions of senses; (1) Senses are modes of presentation, (2) Senses fix reference, (3) they serve as the denotation of expressions in oblique contexts ( Burge ‘Frege on Sense and Linguistic Meaning’ pp.242-243). Furthermore, it is important to note that for Frege Senses are not to be reduced to linguistic meaning. Frege argued that while mathematicians who had written in his time and prior to him used linguistic descriptions of various different mathematical concepts their linguistic descriptions only partially and incompletely captured the abstract senses of the various different mathematical concepts. On Frege’s views senses belonged to a third realm of abstractions that existed independently of any psychological states or of the physical world.

Frege’s views on the subject were brilliantly argued for and to this day stand out as one of the best explanations we have for mathematical knowledge. His reasons for dismissing psychological states and subjective ideas are nicely summarised by Jacqquette:

“Frege wanted to distance himself from including meaning factors in the third level of associated mental content. He did not deny their existence. That is important. He nevertheless found no place for transitory ideas in objective non-psychologistic semantics. He concluded that an associated mental image, connotation, and “poetic” but nonetheless real “colouring” may sometimes accompany a thought’s reference to an intended objected by means of a word’s or sentence’s sense, what the symbol is being used to express and the thinker trying to say. However, Frege did not believe that these accidental subjectively variable associations occur in any lawlike way.” ( Jacquette ‘Frege: A Philosophical Biography’ p. 335)

Frege’s views on the above topic have influenced the likes of Quine, Wittgenstein, and Skinner. Frege’s argument in the above piece is pretty convincing. Whatever, the subjective colour provided by our idiosyncratic experiences as we do math; if we want to engage in law like inferences we need to move beyond our psychology and into the normative level.

From a logical point of view Frege’s attack on a naive psychologism is a sensible attack; without the attack we are in a quandary in explaining our normative judgements in logic and our law-like explanations of natural phenomena. Nonetheless, there was at times something unbalanced in Frege’s reaction to psychological explanations.

In his philosophical biography of Frege, Dale Jaquette documented the almost universal bad reviews or indifferent uncomprehending reviews that Frege’s work received throughout his life. Up until Russell acknowledged Frege’s work in his 1903 ‘Principles of Mathematics’ few mathematicians were impressed with Frege’s Logicism. On philosopher who was impressed with Frege’s work was Edmund Husserl; Husserl contacted Frege and they communicated about their respective research into the foundations of mathematics. Husserl even presented Frege with his ‘The Philosophy of Arithmetic’. The evidence from their correspondence seemed to indicate that the younger Husserl hoped to initiate a collaboration with Frege.

However, Frege’s review of ‘The Philosophy of Arithmetic’ put an end to any hope of collaboration between them (though they did communicate with each other after the review). Frege’s review of Husserl’s book was a sustained attack on Husserl for engaging in psychologism in mathematics. What is odd about the review is that Husserl wasn’t attempting to reduce mathematics entirely to psychological states. Nothing in ‘The Philosophy of Arithmetic’ argued that against giving a logical foundation for mathematics. Husserl was just interested in describing the phenomenology of arithmetical thinking (Jacquette p. 434). Husserl was quite clear in the philosophy of arithmetic that he was not trying to reduce arithmetic to psychological processing.

So one wonders why Frege could have misjudged Husserl’s intents so badly and in the process alienate one of his few allies? A plausible explanation is that Frege’s sensible arguments against psychological reductions of the timeless world of mathematics stemmed from an emotional source. And that any attempt to explain math in psychological terms was triggering for him; even if the psychological explanation wasn’t intended to be reductive.

One of Frege’s contemporaries was Bertrand Russell. Russell along with Frege helped to found the discipline of analytic philosophy. Russell often speculated that his early obsession with the world of abstract Platonic entities stemmed from a fear of the contingencies of reality. In the real world things are changeable and sometimes frightening. Russell knew about the contingencies of reality only too well. Both of his parents died when he was still a young child; parents are foundational for children. They are their child’s whole world. From the moment a child is born they are entirely dependent on their parents help to survive. Eventually, typically post adolescence, children become (partially) independent of their parents. But prior to that their parents are their whole world. In his book ‘The Philosophers their Lives and the Nature of their Thoughts’ Ben-Ami Scharfstein noted that a disproportionate amount of philosophers had lost a parent when they were young:

“The table shows what must appear to be a high frequency of early separations from parents, whether by death or by other causes…Of the twenty-two philosophers listed, two had lost both parents and eleven at least one by the age of six. In only six cases did both parents survive till the philosopher was fifteen…Painful separations are no doubt common in early life, but it seems nevertheless notable that at least twenty of the twenty two philosophers may of undergone them…a parent’s death might leave the philosopher in fear that he had inherited some vulnerability or even death from the parent.” (The Philosophers pp 347 -348)

Frege is one of the great philosophers who fits into the above category, he lost his father when he was just reaching adolescence, and he was a sickly child. It is not hard to imagine a weak child terrified with the contingencies of existence, who has lost his father, and who is sickly and acutely aware of his own mortality being fascinated by the universal rules of logic and mathematics. Frege being naturally brilliant at mathematics would have been constantly reinforced in its pursuit when he was developing as a young man. The eternal truths he was discovering would have seemed to have been an anchor that would remain true no matter what the contingencies of life would bring.

It is possible that Frege’s attack on Husserl was an unconscious defensive attack on someone who he unconsciously believed was attacking the only secure foundation he believed possible in the world he found himself in.

However, even if it is true that Frege had an unconscious emotional attachment to Logicism that led him to uncharitable attacks on people who attempted psychological explanations, this hardly makes his life a poem (in the Rortian sense). At best we have a dull professor who feared death and vulnerability and who as a result was overly attached to a particular philosophy.

Frege the human exemplar of a poem it seems is lost to biographers. To understand Frege in the Rortian sense we need artistic representations. Frege’s diary revealing extreme right wing comments and pushing for emotional expression in political gestures reveals a less sympathetic human. A man who flees from psychology and ideas as explanatory tools but who argues for emotional expression is a much more interesting man. But he is a man hidden in shadows. It will take an artist to render this Frege flesh and blood.

[1] Frege didn’t provide much by way of justification for his views on words referring to mind independent entities as opposed to referring to mental representations.

Corporate Groups and Natural Selection

Corporate Groups and Natural Selection

In recent years there has been an unfolding attempt to understand group dynamics in terms of a combination of evolutionary science and behavioural science.  This attempt typically involves an appeal to the concept of group selection. In our ancient evolutionary past what groups were selected would have been simply a matter of what group practices would make it more likely that group x would have survived as opposed to group y or group z. Today we are in a position to design our group practices explicitly and to reflect on what type of groups we want to flourish and what types of group behaviour we would prefer to be culled from our environment.

But when thinking about these issues it is important to reflect on what constitutes a group. We all have intuitive understanding of things we group together. Thus we can group together people who were born and brought up in the same town, people who were born and brought up in the same country, people who share the same religion, people who share the same political views etc. Now if we think in terms of sets we will note that some of these groups will intersect. All people who are born in the same town will make up a subset of people who were born in a particular country. While only some people who are from the same country will be members of the group of people who are from the same town. Trying to pick out which groups will be salient enough to be selected-for, or selected against, by the environment is a tricky task.

It makes little sense to speak of people from a particular country being selected. Humans have populated most environments on the planet and hence have spread to all land masses on the planet. It makes more sense to speak of groups of cultural practices being selected. A group of people on a land mass may have a variety of cultural practices and be exposed to another group with different cultural practices. It is possible that one group of cultural practices will be more effective than the other group of practices, and it will be passed on to the next generation while the other group of practices dies out. Or as is more typical the group practices may merge with the best of both being preserved by the environment.

Above when I spoke about practices being selected I spoke about the best of both groups surviving and being passed on to the next generation. But the word ‘best’ in this sense is ambiguous. To argue that one cultural practice is better than another has normative connotations. But from a strictly evolutionary perspective all that is really implied is that one set of practices survives and another doesn’t. ‘Best’ means nothing more than the practice that is passed on to the next generation.

Thus far I have been speaking breezily enough about group practices being selected. The idea of group practices being selected is of course a very controversial one. Evolutionary theorists such as Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne etc have argued strongly against the concept of group selection. While on the other side of the aisle theorists such as David Sloan Wilson, E O Wilson, and Bob Sapolsky, Boyd and Richerson, etc have argued that group selection is a real force in evolution that is as powerful as selection at the level of genes. Sloan-Wilson makes the point as follows:

“Multilevel selection theory tells us that something similar to team-level selection took place in our species for thousands of generations, resulting in adaptations for teamwork that are baked into the genetic architecture of our minds. Absorbing this fact leads to the conclusion small groups are a fundamental unit of human social organization. Individuals cannot be understood except in the context of small groups, and large-scale societies need to be seen as a kind of multicellular organism comprising small groups.” (David Sloan Wilson ‘This View of Life’ p. 114)

In his 2007 paper ‘The False Allure of Group’ selection Pinker was highly critical of the concept of Group Selection. He argued that the concept was of little use in trying to understand human behaviour, and if we want to understand such behaviour from the point of view of human evolution we are better off sticking to the level of genes being selected. However, Pinker’s arguments failed to convince a lot of his critics.

Linguist Dan Everett argued that a key example of group selection is language. He argues that the function of language is to build communities. If one group of homo-sapiens has language and the other doesn’t then the group with language will be the group selected. Everett also mentions the selection of genetic mutation by cultural pressures (dual inheritance theory) as a paradigm example of group selection (e.g. some group’s ability to digest milk beyond infancy, or dyslexia).

Archaeologist Peter Richerson argued that a pro-social psychology arouse as a result of group selection (groups containing mainly selfish members would be at a disadvantage to more co-operative groups). While evolutionary Biologist Sloan Wilson noted the question that the Darwinian needs to ask is how can traits that evolve which are good for the group, when they are disadvantageous for members within the group. Traditionally this question was answered in two ways firstly by noting (1) Selection among groups is weak compared to selection within groups, (2) Other mechanisms can explain pro-social behaviour in ways that do not invoke group selection. Sloan-Wilson argues that neither of these can be considered true anymore based on recent findings in evolutionary psychology. Traits can evolve as a result of between group selection even if they are disadvantageous at in group levels. And attempts to explain pro-social behaviour without invoking group selection typically (implicitly invoke the concept of group selection).

                             Some examples of Group Designs

Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for her work on the tragedy of the commons. She studied many different groups who had overcome the problem naturally and abstracted out 8 core design principles that are useful in overcoming the problem:

Elinor Ostrom’s Core Design Principles (CDP):

(1) CDP1: Strong Group Identity and Understanding of Purpose:

(2) CDP2: Proportional Equivalence between Benefits and Costs:

(3) CDP3: Fair and Inclusive Decision-Making:

(4) CDP4: Monitoring Agreed-Upon Behaviours:

(5) CDP5: Graduated Sanctions:

(6) CDP6: Fast and Fair Conflict Resolution:

(7) CDP7: Local Autonomy:

(8) CDP8: Polycentric Governance:

In his book ‘This View of Life’ David Sloan Wilson discussed how he implemented these core design principles in an experimental setting in a school (using appropriate controls) and were the design principles were shown to be very effective. He recommends that people working in various different groups; such as, small businesses, schools, universities etc should try to implement these core design principles to increase their effectiveness.

Getting businesses to adopt these scientifically justified design principles will be extremely difficult. A lot of corporate groups like to invoke concepts such as corporate cultures they practice. However these slogans don’t typically represent the actual culture of the corporation, but are rather just ways of branding the organisations. In his ‘Dark Matter of the Mind’ Dan Everett noted that if a company really wanted to decide what their culture is they would need to ask the following questions:

“What are the roles of employees? Who is hired? How are they hired? What tasks and roles are most rewarded (with salaries, bonuses, commissions, stock options, etc.)?What are the relative roles of shareholders vs. stakeholders? What are the company stories in the boardroom, the washroom, parties, and the lunchroom? We cannot understand culture through questionnaires and public pronouncements alone. We must engage in intense participant observation, as in Karen How (2009), or in careful analysis of intended results, as in LiPuma and Lee (2004).” ( Everett ‘Dark Matter of the Mind’ p. 171)

Everett warns us that close observation is needed to distinguish between the culture that is claimed and the culture that is evident from observing the behaviour of the corporation. He uses his rank value theory of culture to evaluate various different cultural practices. His advice to businesses on what questions to ask about what type of culture they are advocating, and on rank preferences within the overall culture, is a necessary first step in implementing Ostrom’s core design principles. First the business (or corporation) needs to establish what culture they are advocating, then, they need to use the core design principles to give the culture its best chance of flourishing.

Reflection on what the overall aims of a company are can help companies face difficult choices head on. It is doubtful that heads of Alcohol or Tobacco industries explicitly aim to kill people or make them sick. The death and illness are a consequence of a culture that values profit (and perhaps creating employment) above the health of their consumers. If our overall society favours this profit first perspective there is no reason for the company to change its behaviour.  It is here that the concept of group selection comes into play. If we create an environment that selects for groups which place profit above all else; the groups that will be selected are the ones that maintain profit better than their rivals. These groups could be a disaster for their consumers, for the environment of the planet etc. This is analogous to breeding a dog for a particular trait such as having a particular head shape. With constant selective breeding one ends up with a dog with a particular head shape selected for and a series of other free riders that came along with the selected for trait (reduced ability to smell, auto immune disorders etc). With the profit at all costs model you select for profitable groups, but as free riders you get a systematic lack of concern for the wellbeing of society and its members. Here it is up to society to decide what type of groups it wants to select for. If we don’t want to select for organisations that maximise profit at all costs we need to create as system of punishments and rewards that selects for the traits we want the groups to exhibit.

The psychologist Anthony Biglan’s work exhibits some of the strengths of this approach of selecting for certain group practices as opposed to other ones. He proposes that we treat organisms as entities whose behaviour we can modify in terms of selection by consequences. He argues that testing the impact of selection by consequences on corporate practices would give citizens and policy makers the tools to select the type of corporations we want (Biglan ‘The Nurture Effect’ p. 177). Although Biglan is aware of the power corporations have to resist such changes he cites his work with the Alcohol industry and the Tobacco industry to show that such change is possible. He suggests that positive reinforcement of good corporate practices may be a better tool than either negative reinforcement or punishment.

With the work of Biglan, Everett, Sloan-Wilson, and Ostrom we have tools for individual groups to make explicit what their actual culture is and why, we have tools to effectively design this group to succeed, we have an understanding of the dynamics of evolution to, as a society, create selective practices to select for groups with particular traits that will benefit society. This will create a feedback loop where corporations will have a Everett type worked out cultural self image, but will also have to compete in a world that is designed to select for practices based on an ethical world view based on more than just profit. If the checks and balances society is implementing on the particular corporation are impeding their growth they will have to modify their worked out self interest relative to the interests of the societies’ selective practices.

Obviously, a fear with the above is that what is being proposed is a form of top down governance in the mould of communism. However, that is not being argued for, rather what is needed what Biglan calls a more nurturing form of capitalism.

One criticism of my claims above is that corporations are too powerful for any governmental body to select for or against their behaviour. In my next blog-post I will evaluate how corporate power can be modified from within using the conceptual tools provided by Blanco’s set theoretic understanding of the mind and naturalizing his conception in terms of contextual behavioural science.