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John Horne Tooke’s influence on Quine and Skinner

“For the perfections of Language, not properly understood, have been one of the chief causes of the imperfections of our philosophy.” (John Horne Tooke ‘The Diversions of Purley’ p. 19)

The above quote, taken from ‘The Diversions of Purley[1]’, demonstrate John Horne Tooke’s views on language and its relation to philosophical thinking; and anticipate views which would become prominent in twentieth century analytic philosophy. In particular the above quote would put one in mind of the work of the later Wittgenstein. There is no evidence that Tooke’s work in anyway influenced Wittgenstein’s philosophy. However, we do know that Tooke’s work influenced the philosopher and logician Willard Quine and psychologist B.F. Skinner.

Skinner came across Tooke’s work in the early thirties when he was a junior fellow at Harvard:

“Henderson urged me to look at John Horne Tooke’s ‘Diversions of Purley’…the book was out of print but I advertised, and several booksellers sent me quotations. I brought two and gave one to Van Quine inscribed Verbum Sat.” ( Skinner “The Shaping of a Behaviourist” p. 158) (ibid p. 282)

In his autobiography ‘The Time of My Life’, Quine recalled Skinner giving him a copy of Tooke’s book:

“It was particularly in language theory, rather, that Fred opened doors for me. My linguistic interest had run to etymological detail; he put me onto Bloomfield and Jesperson and gave me an American first edition of John Horne Tooke.” (Quine: The Time of My Life p. 110)

In this blog-post I will discuss the influence that Horne Tooke’s book had on both Quine and Skinner, and what their respective reactions to Tooke, reveals about their different behaviourist philosophies.

Quine and John Horne Tooke

In 1946 Quine gave a series of lectures on the philosophy of David Hume. In the lecture series he obviously related Hume to the other empiricists and rationalists who were contemporaries and near contemporaries of Hume. During these lectures Quine discussed the work of John Horne Tooke, who Quine believed, had made an advance over the British Empiricists. When discussing the British Empiricists Quine noted that they were all wedded to the idea idea conception of epistemology. Tooke’s ‘Diversions’ was an attempt to move away from this idea centric epistemology. Tooke considered and critiqued the work of John Locke but didn’t discuss either David Hume or George Berkeley’s work.

Tooke argued you could translate Locke’s talk of ‘ideas’ with talk of ‘words’ and you would increase the clarity and correctness of Locke’s philosophy. Quine agreed with Tooke’s assessment of Locke’s philosophy, and thirty years later in his paper ‘Five Milestones of Empiricism’ argued that Tooke’s move away from idea centric philosophy to an emphasis on words was one of the key milestones in the development of empiricist philosophy.

Tooke’s philosophy reduced all discourse to two main categories; nouns and verbs. He argued that one could explain other linguistic phrases such as ‘prepositions’, ‘adjectives’ etc by analysing them. Upon analysis he claimed that such words contained a hidden complexity. Thus, for example, Tooke analysed the preposition ‘for’ interms of the underlying notion of ‘cause’. He did this by analysing an incredible amount of sentences containing the word ‘for’ and showing how the sentences could all be correctly analysed by treating ‘for’ as meaning ‘cause’. Thus Tooke was satisfied that he could analyse away the preposition ‘for’ and treat it as a verb. He used similar processes of analysis on a variety of other prepositions, and on adverbs, conjunctions etc. As well as analysing various different parts of written language to reveal its function; Tooke also tried to explain how these words evolved over time by examining their etymology.

Quine admired what he called Tooke’s the method of abbreviations (Quine ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of David Hume’ p. 62). In his ‘Divergence’ Tooke argued that when trying to understand speech we need to conceive of it as words which are necessary to communicate our thoughts and abbreviations which help with expressing these thoughts clearly. Tooke argued that there are two sorts of words necessary to the communicating of our thoughts; nouns and verbs. Everything else he conceived of as being abbreviations which when analysed closely will be shown to be either nouns or verbs. His analysis of the word ‘for’ above is a good example of his understanding his method of abbreviation. In his 1951 ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ Quine related this method of abbreviations to the verification theory of meaning:

“Radical reductionism, in one form or another, well antedates the verification theory of meaning explicitly so called. Thus Locke and Hume held that every idea must either originate directly in sense experience or else be compounded of ideas thus originating; and taking a hint from Tooke we might rephrase this doctrine in semantical jargon by saying that a term, to be significant at all, must be either a name of a sense datum or a compound of such names or an abbreviation of such a compound. So stated the doctrine remains ambiguous as between sense data as sensory events and sense data as sensory qualities; and it remains vague as to the admissible ways of compounding. ( Quine ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ p. 38)

John Locke believed that we begin with simple ideas derived from perception and combine them (somehow) to form complex ideas when thinking. Locke further argued that the words in our language got their meanings by referring to these ideas. What Quine admired about Tooke’s work was that he cut out the middle man so to speak. Tooke was emphasising the fact that our words got their meanings in by picking out things and events in the environment. On Tooke’s picture ‘ideas’ were a theoretically superfluous posit:

“Every purpose for which the composition of Ideas was imagined being more easily and naturally answered by the composition of Terms: whilst at the same time it does likewise clear up many difficulties in which the supposed composition of Ideas necessarily involves us.” (Hooke ‘Divergences’ p. 20)

Quine asks us to note that we shouldn’t read Tooke’s criticism of complex ideas as denying the importance of mental activity, nor should one think that the concept of complex definitions (abbreviations) don’t involve mental activity. Rather, Tooke was just pointing out that ideas as explanatory posits don’t do much work in clarifying how we connect stimulation with discourse (Quine ‘Lectures in the philosophy of Hume p. 63). In his 1977 paper ‘Facts of the Matter’ Quine made the point as follows:

“Let us therefore recognize that the whole idea idea, abstract and concrete, is a frail reed indeed. We must seek a firm footing rather in words. The point was urged by John Horne Tooke only shortly after Hume’s time, in 1786. Tooke held that Locke’s essay could be much improved by substituting the word ‘word’ everywhere for the word ‘idea’. What is thereby gained in firmness is attended by no appreciable loss in scope, since ideas without words would have come to little in any event. We think mostly in words, and we report our thoughts wholly in words. Let us then take one leaf from the old-time philosophy and another from John Horne Tooke. Philosophical inquiry should begin with the clear, yes; but with clear words. (‘Facts of the Matter’ p. 271)

In Quine’s ‘Five milestones of Empiricism’ (1978), he again, credits Tooke with emphasising the importance of words over ideas, arguing that this move was a key milestone in the development of empiricism. The other four milestones Quine discusses are Bentham’s emphasis of the sentence having semantic primacy in language over words, Duhem emphasis of the primacy of systems of belief over sentences, his dissolution of the analytic/synthetic distinction which he argues this leads to methodological monism, and his demonstration that there is no first philosophy.

I won’t here speak of his last four milestones of empiricism, given that the subject matter of the blog is John Horne Tooke, I will focus on Quine’s first milestone of empiricism. Quine noted the following:

The first was the shift of attention from Ideas to words. This was the adoption of the policy, in epistemology, of talking about linguistic expressions where possible instead of ideas…I think of it as entering modern empiricism only in 1786, when…John Horne Tooke wrote as follows: “the greatest part of Mr. Locke’s essay, that is.  All which relates to what he calls the abstraction, complexity, generalization, relation etc., of ideas, does indeed merely concern language.” British empiricism was dedicated to the proposition that only sense makes sense. Ideas were acceptable only if based on sense impressions. But Tooke appreciated that the idea idea measures up poorly to empiricist standards. Translated into Tooke’s terms, then, the basic proposition of British Empiricism would seem to say that words make sense only insofar as they are definable in sensory terms” (“Five Milestones of Empiricism” p. 68)

Quine notes that this approach of Tooke’s leads instantly to problems. The grammatical particles which we use to organise our concepts don’t easily reduce to sensory experiences. As we saw above Tooke tried to avoid this problem by saying that sentences could be reduced to two functions ‘nouns’ and ‘verbs’; thus nouns refer to sensory experiences while verbs say things about these experiences. To work within this austere empiricist frame work Tooke had to explain away grammatical concepts such as ‘if, and, but, there’ etc interms of nouns and verbs. Tooke justified this approach by giving unpersuasive etymological definitions of these grammatical concepts.

Quine was pretty dismissive of Tooke’s attempts to explain the grammatical concepts interms of nouns and verbs. He argued cogently that Tooke didn’t realise that these concepts were syncategorematic; they couldn’t be defined in isolation but only in context.

Quine was largely correct in his argument that grammatical concepts are not definable in isolation. But he didn’t sufficiently appreciate the possibility that grammar may be an innate imposition on how we group words together. Quine was working in the logical positivist tradition which worked to reduce our theories to sensory experiences and logical constructions based on sensory experience. While he was correct that grammatical concepts cannot be defined in terms of sensory experience and are syncategorematic; he seems to entirely ignore the possibility that grammatical concepts be indefinable (by which he means they cannot be explained interms of sensory experience), because they are innate and are used in helping us interpret sensory experience. In short in his discussion of the five milestones of empiricism Quine was guilty of underplaying the role of non-empirical Kantian (or at least Chomskian type knowledge). I am not arguing that the Kantian/Chomskian alternative is the correct explanation of the grammatical particles. I am just noting that his empiricism is blinding him to an alternative explanation. And this blindness is particularly interesting to note given that Quine noted many times in his interactions with Chomsky that he had no difficulty with explanations which appealed to innateness.

However, it is not within the scope of this particular blog-post to discuss the evidence for innate syntax so I will not pursue the above criticism of Quine here. The key point to note is that while Quine agreed with Horne Tooke’s movement from explanations in terms of ideas to explanations in terms of terms; Quine didn’t agree with Tooke’s analysis of grammatical particles. In the next section I will explore how Skinner deals with Tooke’s analysis of grammar and Tooke’s criticisms of idea centric philosophy.

Skinner and John Horne Tooke

 “The French novel of the nineteenth century was possibly close to what I wanted, and I reread Stendhal and Balzac. I was caught up in a renewal of interest in George Eliot and tried rewriting parts of ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘Daniel Deronda’, replacing references to feelings with references to the actions from which feelings were inferred. It did not work. Mentalistic terms were like the “abbreviations” of John Horne Tooke; they were the products. Accurate reports of the same contingencies ran to much greater length.” (B.F. Skinner ‘A Matter of Consequences’ p. 245)

  1. F. Skinner began working on whether language could be explained behaviouristically in the mid-nineteen thirties after a challenge set to him by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. For over fifty years after his discussion with Whitehead, Skinner at various times in his career worked on the nature of language. Throughout this fifty year period whenever he discussed language the name of John Horne Tooke came up. In his 1947 lectures on language (later called the Hefferline notes), Skinner briefly spoke approvingly of Horne Tooke’s work:

John Horne Tooke, Englishman of the 18th century, wasn’t liked and was popped into jail once or twice by the government. He had one trial which hinged on the interpretation of the word ‘that’. This got him going and he wrote a book…He was a good behaviourist although he didn’t know it.” (Skinner ‘The Hefferline Lectures’ p. 21)

Unfortunately despite speaking approvingly of Horne Tooke in ‘The Hefferline Lectures’ Skinner didn’t expand on what it was about Horne Tooke’s work that he found impressive. Forty years later when discussing the evolution of ‘Verbal Behaviour’, Skinner again mentioned Horne Tooke’s work:

“An early effort by John Horne Tooke in the ‘Diversions of Purley’ (1776) has not been fully appreciated. That Tooke was not always right as an etymologist was not as important as his efforts to explain how English speakers could have come to say such words as ‘if’, ‘but’, or ‘and’.” (‘The Evolution of Verbal Behaviour’ p. 120)

It is no coincidence that Skinner’s interest in Horne Tooke centred on his analysis of concepts such ‘if’, ‘but’, ‘that’, ‘and’ etc. Skinner was also impressed with Quine’s analysis of similar concepts in his ‘Elementary Logic’. In fact in ‘Verbal Behaviour’ where Skinner discussed Horne Tooke in most detail he notes that Horne Tooke’s analysis of language was similar to Quine’s analysis in ‘Elementary logic’ (Verbal Behaviour p.342).

It was in his ‘Verbal Behaviour’, that Skinner discussed John Horne Tooke in most detail. Interestingly Skinner’s discussion of the Tooke was along the same lines as Quines. Skinner, like Quine, discussed Horne Tooke’s criticism of Locke’s ‘Inquiry into Human Understanding’ for being better thought of as being concerned with words rather than ideas. Skinner even cites the same passages from Horne Tooke re-John Locke that Quine did. However, while Quine was careful to note that Tooke was primarily speaking about language over ideas because ideas were non-explanations, he also noted that we shouldn’t read Tooke as denying that mental activity underlay verbal behaviour. Skinner on the other hand read Horne Tooke as arguing that all thinking involved verbal behaviour; Skinner then goes on to argue that Tooke is incorrect in arguing thusly and points to things such as mental imagery, and spatio temporal reasoning as a refutation of Tooke’s purported views (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p.449).

Skinner and Quine’s different readings of Horne Tooke are understandable. Horne-Tooke is very articulate on what he sees as the problems with idea-centric philosophy. He also has skilled arguments for using terms and their analysis and historical development to make our philosophy more objective. But he says little (either positive or negative) about whether he thinks that there is cognitive apparatus underling the ability to use verbal behaviour. So there is scope for both Quine and Skinner to differ in their interpretations of Horne Tooke on this issue and little textual data to settle the matter conclusively.

Another area where Skinner and Quine discussed Horne Tooke was in relation to his treatment of grammar. Skinner was particularly interested in Horne Tooke in relation to what he called autoclitics. Before proceeding to discuss Skinner’s take on Horne Tooke re-autoclitics I will need to briefly discuss Skinner’s explication of the various different functional units that make up ‘Verbal Behaviour’. A Mand is a Verbal Operant in which the response is reinforced by a particular consequence; and hence is under the functional control of relevant conditions of deprivation or aversive stimulation (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 36). In other words the mand is a type of response that is under the control of and singled out by certain controlling variables. A paradigm of a mand is saying ‘water’ when thirsty and receiving water in return (being reinforced for saying ‘water’).

A tact is a verbal operant that is controlled by non-verbal stimulus. The child says ‘doll’ in the presence of a doll and is reinforced. Used as a mand the word ‘doll’ would result in the child being handed a doll. But as a tact the child says the word ‘doll’ in the presence of a doll and is reinforced by his peers (through praise, attention etc).

An echoic is Verbal Behaviour that is controlled by other Verbal Behaviour. Thus the child repeats the word ‘doll’ upon hearing the word ‘doll’ spoken. Intraverbal Behaviour is behaviour where Verbal Behaviour is controlled by other Verbal Behaviour; but where the there isn’t a formal correspondence between the stimulus and response product (Verbal Behaviour p. 71). An example of echoic behaviour would be one person saying ‘the wheels on the bus’ and the other person saying ‘the wheels on the bus’. Whereas, an example of an Intraverbal behaviour; would be one person saying, ‘The wheels on the bus’, and the other person saying ‘go round and round’. Skinner uses Intraverbal behaviour to explain analytic truths. ‘Thus 2 plus 2’ ‘equals 4’ would be explained as an Intraverbal where 4 is under the control of 2 plus 2.

The autoclitic is a form of Verbal Behaviour that modifies other verbal operants such as the mand, the tact etc. Skinner notes that there are different types of autoclitics. One type is the descriptive autoclitic which says something about the particular verbal operant that is used; so if you take the word ‘heads’ this can be modified by a descriptive autoclitic as follows (I said (heads)), (I will say (heads)) etc. There are many different sub-types of descriptive autoclitics such an autoclitics with indicate my strength of belief in a verbal operant I have emitted; thus I could modify the tact ‘the cat is black’ with the autoclitic of weakness (I hesitate to say (the cat is black).

As well as descriptive autoclitics Skinner also discusses qualifying autoclitics, quantifying autoclitics and manipulative autoclitics. It was in relation to autoclitics that Skinner discussed John Horne Tooke’s work.

As we saw above Horne Tooke was concerned with explicating language in terms of nouns and verbs. Tooke believed that he could explain away the other aspects of language by analysing them as being abbreviations which ultimately were nouns or verbs. Horne Tooke’s method was drawing out the terms meanings through analysis, and explain how the terms had the form they did by tracing their etymology. Thus when analysing the preposition ‘through’ Horne Tooke analyses it as deriving from the nouns ‘door’/ ‘gate’/ ‘passage’; his justification is dual. He shows how he can analyse common uses of ‘through’ interms of ‘door’/’gate’/’passage’ and he traces the etymology of the term ‘through’ to justify his analysis (‘Divergence’ pp.180-183).

Tooke’s analysis is interesting and puts one in mind of the work of Lakoff and Johnson who analyse our language as deriving from embodied experiences to more abstract realms. Thus a common physical object  such as  a door or a gate that we have an embodied relation to are used in more abstract senses to think about more complex objects. It is not within the remit of this blog-post to evaluate the truth of Tooke’s analysis rather I just want to trace what Skinner and Quine made of Tooke’s views.

Skinner admired Tooke’s analysis of language, however he didn’t agree with Tooke’s contention that all language could be reduced to verbs and nouns. As we saw above Skinner didn’t analyse language interms of traditional grammatical categories; rather he argued that the key to understanding language was to analyse it in terms of various type of behavioural functions (mands, tacts etc). Skinner noted that Tooke’s analysis was hindered by the fact that Tooke had no real understanding of the fact that some words were used to deal with other parts of language. According to Skinner, Tooke’s abbreviations were just words which were used to manipulate nouns and verbs, and not grasping this fact held back Tooke’s analysis of language (Verbal Behaviour p. 341):

“What Tooke lacked was a conception of behaviour as such. He was still under the influence of British empiricism and, in spite of an heroic declaration of independence…Struggling against an enormous weight of tradition, Tooke is talking about verbal behaviour. He has “disabbreviated” the puzzling terms which cannot be accounted for as object words or by appeal to images-terms which we would classify here as autoclitics- and  has found that they are verbs. This leads him to an important generalization which we could paraphrase in this way: some verbal responses are evoked by external state of affairs. These Tooke wants to call nouns. Other responses are communication itself. They affect the listener and have no function aside from that effect. Tooke wants the listener to have no function aside from that effect. Tooke wants to call them verbs. Writing more than a hundred and fifty years ago, he had no alternative, but a fresh formulation is possible today.” ( Skinner ‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 343)

Skinner was impressed with Tooke’s recognition that language had a dual function; referring to objects in the external world; and communicating about these objects via verbs. However, Skinner noted that as a thinker of his time Tooke didn’t have a sufficient grasp of the various different functions of language and the social reinforcement controlling these behavioural functions.

Both Skinner and Quine were impressed with Tooke’s move away from Locke’s idea idea epistemology. Though they interpreted Tooke’s move in different ways; Quine seemed to believe that Tooke’s views were compatible with a mild form of cognitivism though not of the sort that would vindicate folk-psychology. While Skinner read Tooke as overplaying the linguistic nature of thinking. When it came to grammar both Quine and Skinner, while impressed with Tooke’s work, had some reservations. Quine argued that Tooke didn’t appreciate the contextual nature of grammar and erroneously tried to reduce them to sensory impressions and judgements about these impressions. Skinner on the other hand disagreed with Tooke’s grammar because he didn’t think that Tooke sufficiently appreciated the various different functions of language; nor the reinforcing contingencies that shaped these functions.

Skinner and Quine’s different criticisms of Tooke aren’t necessarily incompatible but they do illustrate their divergent interests. Quine the great critic the idea that our epistemic contact with the world can be purely cashed out in sensory terms; railing against Tooke’s attempt to explain our linguistic capacities in terms of sensory experiences. And Skinner attempting to explain language behaviourally and functionally, admiring Tooke’s attempts to step out of the Cartesian Tradition he was trained in, but lacking an account of behaviour powerful to complete the job.

[1] Henceforth I will refer to ‘The Diversions of Purley’ as ‘Diversions’.

Quine Skinner: Behavioural Laws and Reductionism

“Yet, Skinner and Quine do not have only different aims. If one examines Quine’s views about causal explanation in psychology, their behaviouristic theories turn out to be in fact incompatible…Even if the physiological variables between stimulus and response were to be completely specified, Skinner maintains, the laws are to be found on a behavioural level; physiologists and neuroscientists can at best fill the temporal and spatial gap between a stimulus and a response. Quine, on the other hand, defends the opposite view. He believes that behaviour ultimately requires a physiological (or better, a neurological) explanation instead.” (Verhaegh ‘The Behaviourisms of Skinner and Quine’ pp.36-38)


In his ‘The Behaviourisms of Skinner and Quine’ Verhaegh argued that Skinner and Quine held diametrically opposed views on the relation of behaviour to neuroscience. On Verhaegh’s picture; Quine believed that a true explanation is at the neuroscientific level, while the behavioural explanation is just a shallow stop gap, whereas Skinner believed that there are behavioural laws independent of what we discover in neuroscience. There is a lot to recommend Verhaegh’s interpretation of the data. Skinner did sometimes argue that neuroscientific explanations can only serve to plug up some gaps in behavioural knowledge, but that the functional laws were the most important thing:

“The physiologist of the future will tell us all that can be known about what is happening inside the behaving organism. His account will be an important advance over a behavioural analysis, because the latter is necessarily “historical”-that is to say, it is confined to functional relations showing temporal gaps. Something is done today which affects the behaviour of an organism tomorrow. No matter how clearly that fact can be established, a step is missing, and we must wait for the physiologist to supply it. He will be able to show how an organism is changed when exposed to contingencies of reinforcement and why the changed organism then behaves in a different way, possibly at a much later date. What he discovers cannot invalidate the laws of a science of behaviour, but it will make the picture of human action more nearly complete.” (‘About Behaviourism’ p. 237)

The above quote from Skinner’s 1974 ‘About Behaviourism’ is an interesting perspective on Skinner’s take on the relation between neuroscience and behavioural science. Skinner is arguing future neuroscientists will make important advances over behavioural science. This indicates that for Skinner; behavioural science isn’t entirely autonomous, and that behaviourists can learn something from neuroscientific studies. Skinner is arguing that behavioural science, like the science of natural selection is necessarily historical. If you want to establish a behavioural law you will need to do experiments that are historical in nature. These experiments will typically involve studying the three term contingency (antecedent, behaviour, consequence), to pick out a behavioural law. But with a sufficiently advanced neuroscience we may be able to discover the chemical laws that underlie the causal regularities discovered by the behavioural scientist. These discoveries in neuroscience won’t refute the discovered behavioural regularities but they will be an advance on our overall picture of the behaviour of organisms.

However it is difficult to see how Skinner’s above approach is incompatible with Quine’s approach. Consider the following statement of Quine’s (which Verhaegh quotes):

“An explanation, not the deepest one, but of a shallower kind, is possible at the purest behavioural level. One can hope to find, and I think one does find, behavioural regularities.” (Quine 2008 pp. 69-81)

On the face of it Quine and Skinner seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet; we can discover behavioural laws; but ultimately we should be able to discover more fundamental neuroscientific laws.

The obvious rejoinder to this is that while the above quote may indicate that Quine and Skinner were in agreement on this topic, a closer look at Quine indicates that he held views which are much stronger than the above quote indicates, in numerous different places he argued that behaviour is not the explanation, but something that must be explained by more fundamental sources e.g. physiology (Quine 1998 p. 94).

However, even the above claim by Quine finds resonance in the writings of Skinner:

Eventually, we may assume, the facts and principles of psychology will be reducible not only to physiology but through biochemistry to physics and subatomic physics.” (Skinner: Cumulative Record p. 302)

It should be noted that Skinner wasn’t always consistent in his views on this topic. As we saw above Skinner sometimes argued that behavioural laws are independent of neural discoveries (though they may be enriched by them). But above he is arguing that behavioural laws can ultimately be reduced to neuroscientific laws. The same inconsistency seems to dog Quine’s explanations of behavioural regularities. In some places he is arguing that behavioural regularities exist, but in other places he seems to think that such regularities are unimportant other than as pointers as to what is going on in the brain. There is obviously no contradiction in believing that ‘regularities occur’ and also believing that ‘such regularities are unimportant’. But there is a tension in the two beliefs.

There many behavioural laws that have been experimentally and observationally studied over the last few decades. An extinction burst is a clear behavioural regularity. Applied Behavioural Analysis is the most effective scientific treatment that currently exists for managing challenging behaviour. In a hospital setting, where some patients with severe learning difficulties exhibit dangerous challenging behaviour, such as, a child punching themselves repeatedly in the head; analysts must try to discover what reinforcements are maintaining such behaviours. To do this Skinner’s three term contingency is typically applied. The analyst will carefully record the instants before the behaviour occurred, the behaviour itself, and the consequences which immediately follow the behaviour. Through this process he can discover which procedures are reinforcing the behaviour.  By removing these reinforcers the analyst can extinguish the behaviour.

The process of functional extinction has been verified in many studies and across many species (‘Applied Behaviour Analysis’ p. 473). By removing the reinforcers controlling the behaviour, the analyst can make the behaviour extinct. However, prior to extinction there is an increase in the said behaviour occurring, and this is called an extinction burst (Lerman, Iwata and Wallace (1999), Goh and Iwata (1994). The occurrence of extinction bursts are well established in basic behavioural research.

When Quine says that there are behavioural regularities but that the fundamental regularities occur at the physiological level it is hard to parse what he means. In the case of extinction bursts we have clear regularities; understanding the physiology better would add to our knowledge of what is going on. But it is hard to see how the underlying physiology is any more real than the behavioural regularity which has been discovered, and which can be predicted and controlled using behavioural science. When we discover behavioural laws, as Quine admits that we do, then these laws are real patterns that have been discovered, we can learn more about the underlying causal sequences that make these patterns occur, but such real patterns are more than just pointers towards the underlying physiology they are law like facts in their own right.

Thus far we have seen that Quine and Skinner are both a bit inconsistent in their views on the relation of relation of behaviour to physiology. There is a side of Skinner, and of Quine, which comes close to endorsing a kind of crude reductionism; where the ultimate explanation is at the physiological level; with the eventual aim being to give our explanations in terms of basic physics. However, this preference for the underlying physiology as the real explanation is much more prominent in Quine’s philosophy than in Skinner’s. The general thrust of Skinner’s philosophy is that there are real behavioural laws and while neuroscientific data enrich our behavioural laws; they cannot supplant them.

Quine seems to acknowledge that we have behavioural laws but argues that these laws are just pointers we can use to get at the real data; the neuroscientific data. Quine’s position on this subject isn’t entirely inconsistent with Skinners. Both admit that behavioural laws exist, and both admit that the underlying physiology can enrich our behavioural laws. To the extent that they disagree it is on the status of the behavioural laws; Skinner takes the importance of these behavioural laws seriously, while Quine argues they are mere pointers to the real data; the underlying physiological facts.

Where Quine and Skinner’s views diverge it is pretty obvious that Skinner’s views on the nature of laws of behaviour are more accurate than Quine’s are. The laws of behaviour that are studied by behavioural scientists do much more than merely point towards underlying physiological states they are tools that are useful in the prediction and control of the behaviour of both human and non-human animals.  The success of disciplines such as Applied Behavioural Analysis are clear evidence that Quine’s dismissal of behavioural laws as mere pointers towards underlying physiology is very wrong headed.

Aside from Behavioural Analysts using and discovering behavioural laws; behavioural laws have proven to be useful tools for neuroscientists to use. In the years since Quine and Skinner were writing, conditioning has become a vital tool which neuroscientists use to understand the circuitry of the brain. Classical conditioning has proven more useful than operant conditioning in these experiments:

And work by my laboratory and the laboratories of colleagues using Pavlovian fear conditioning was very successful in achieving, in a few short years, what instrumental avoidance conditioning had failed to do- identification of the brain areas and connections between them that constituted what came to be known as the brain’s fear system.” (Le Doux: Anxiety p. 31)

While classical conditioning has proven a useful tool for neuroscientists to use when trying to understand how the brain works, these studies have also revealed some useful information about the neuroscientific basis of types of classical conditioning. In his lab, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has done some ground breaking work on the neuroscience of fear and has used classical conditioning as a tool. His research not only helps us understand fear but also helps us understand the circuitry of fear conditioning:

“One of the targets suggested by the tracing studies was the amygdala. When we lesioned this area, or disconnected it from the auditory system, the fear conditioned responses were eliminated. Within the amygdala, we also found an area that receives auditory CS input (the lateral amygdala, LA) and connects with an area (the central amygdala, CeA) that sends outputs to downstream targets that separately control freezing and blood pressure conditioned responses. Further, we were able to locate cells in the LA input region that received both the auditory CS and the shock US. This was an especially important discovery because the integration of the CS and the US at the cellular level was thought to be required for fear conditioning to occur. After the circuit and cellular changes involved in the process was identified, we turned to the molecular mechanisms in the LA that underlie the learning and expression of conditioned fear, many of which were the same as those discovered by Kandel and others invertebrates.” ( Le Doux: ‘Anxious’ p. 30)

Research like this is important because it provided experimental evidence of the underlying circuitry involved in fear conditioning. This is only a small piece of the puzzle; classical conditioning is a much more general process than the conditioning that occurs in fear conditioning. There is more research needed into how general the neural processes are which underlie classical conditioning in general. But research is proceeding at break neck speed and we can only hope that these general problems will eventually be solved:

“Numerous studies by my laboratory and others have confirmed that when the CS is paired with an aversive US, LA neurons do respond more strongly to the CS. Further, we and others have identified many molecules that contribute to the induction of these changes during learning and the stabilization of these changes in the storage of memory. Once the associative memory has been formed, the CS can, on its own, strongly activate LA neurons.” (ibid p. 95)

Why Classical Conditioning is more useful than Operant Conditioning is not entirely clear. In general classical conditioning is a type of learning that is useful in helping an animal passively learn from environmental experiences, and operant conditioning is more suitable for an animal to learn as it actively moves about its environment. The different functions of classical conditioning and operant conditioning may explain their relative uses for neuroscientists. A passive form of learning would obviously be more useful to in studies involving neuroscientific instruments.

                                     The Evolution of Conditioning

When discussing the work of the Le Doux lab he made a distinction between Classical and Operant conditioning in terms of their utility for neuroscientific research. This distinction is well established in the literature; since about Skinner’s time. But there is some evidence that while Operant and Classical Conditioning are not identical they may both rely on the same underlying neural architecture. In their recent paper; ‘Classical and Operant Conditioning: Evolutionary Distinct Strategies’ Bronfmann et all argue that classical conditioning and operant conditioning are different facets of the same underlying associative learning system (Bronfmann et al. p. 34). They suggest three criteria to use to help discover whether operant and classical conditioning are separate capacities or if they rely on the same underlying architecture; (1) Functional Distinctiveness, which can be inferred by double dissociations, (2) Taxonomic distinctiveness: members of one animal taxa will have one system (CC), while members of another animal taxa will have another system (OC), (3) Adaptive evolutionary distinctiveness:  distinct forms of learning should have distinct evolutionary rationales (ibid p.35)

In answer to their first question they note that there has been some experimental research indicating dissociation where through brain damage a creature can learn through operant conditioning and not classical conditioning (Brembs et al 2008, Lorenzetti 2006, Ostland, et al 2007). However they note that there are only a few experiments indicating this dissociation is possible and that these studies haven’t been replicated. So before drawing any large scale conclusions more research is needed. On question two they claim that there no evidence of any animal who possesses one type of conditioning but not the other. Again research is in its infancy and more research is recommended. On the third question they argue that given that OC and CC are paradigm domain general learning processes it is unlikely that theorists will be able to construct a plausible evolutionary rationale of them being selected for in different way.

On the whole then a theorist who wanted to argue for two distinctive processes underlying OC and CC could appeal to the few experiments indicating that dissociation of the  OT and CC is possible. But overall there would be very little evidence to support their views on the topic. So Bronfmann et al argue that despite the consensus in behavioural science there is little evidence to suggest that we should adopt an absolute distinction between classical and operant conditioning.

With new evidence chipping away at the neuroscientific nature of conditioning, with cross comparative and experimental data being use to discover if classical conditioning and operant conditioning use similar underlying neural circuitry, and even some data on the evolution of conditioning we are learning much more about conditioning than either Quine or Skinner knew. And so far everything we have learned seems to support the less reductive position than the one Quine proposed. We are learning more and more about conditioning and its neural basis; but this hasn’t come close to reducing the behavioural regularities to mere pointers to underlying states. Rather despite what we have learned behavioural analysts are today are still using behavioural laws (some of which were discovered by Skinner), to shape the behaviour of human and non human animals. There is no reason at present to follow Quine in treating behavioural laws as some kind of shallow explanation.

The sense of fundamental Quine typically appeals to is one that relies on a strong sense of physicalism:

“Nothing happens in the world, not a flutter of an eylid, not the flicker of a thought, without some redistribution of micro-physical states. (Quine ‘Goodman’s Ways of World Making’ p. 98)

Quine’s above statement that all forms of behaviour depend on some kind of underlying microphysical process is relatively uncontroversial. It is hard to imagine a behavioural scientist who would object to the claim that any behavioural laws discovered will have an explanation in terms of underlying physical processes. Likewise, it is hard to imagine an evolutionary scientist who would deny that all examples of natural selection have underlying physical causes. But it obviously doesn’t follow that because a process is causally dependent on underlying physical states that the process is shallow piece of information that will ultimately be explained away.

There are real patterns that exist in the world that will be missed out on if we try to understand something at the wrong level of abstraction. If we stick to just understanding a portion of the world in terms of subatomic particles and forces acting on them then our explanation will be incomplete; such an explanation will be entirely blind to things like sexual selection. The fact that sticking entirely too fundamental physics will blind one real patterns at the evolutionary level obviously doesn’t mean that physics is irrelevant to evolutionary theory.

Physics can provide constraints to what type of creatures can be built by natural selection; see for example work on scaling laws and invariants in animal locomotion Bejan and Marden (2006), and Trevisian et al. (2006) on the physics of bird songs. Now suppose one adopts the Quinean approach to evolutionary explanations of the origins of life, and argues that explanations interms of natural selection are shallow, the real explanation is at the level of basic physics or chemistry. As we saw above if we adopted this approach in its reductionistic sense we would be ignoring real patterns in the world and explaining away patently real phenomena. A less radical approach would be to accept that physics can constrain, and inform explanations in evolutionary science but not supplant.

When it comes to behavioural science and biology things are similar. The degree to which Quine and Skinner disagree on the status behavioural laws and their relation to neuroscience; isn’t always clear. But it is clear that any radical reductionism that tries to reduce behavioural laws to mere pointers to underlying neural states is untenable.

The Logic of Misogyny and the Burning of Bridget Cleary

                                       Part 1: The Logic of Misogyny

In her recent book ‘The Logic of Misogyny’ Kate Manne has explored the concept of misogyny. Manne noted that a lot of attempts to understand misogyny rely on hypothesis of the psychological attitudes men hold towards women. Manne’s analysis of the concept is different. She notes that a sexist person will hold certain attitudes and beliefs about women; but the same isn’t true of misogyny.  A sexist will believe things such as; women are less intelligent in general than men; women aren’t competent to do the same work as men etc. A misogynist doesn’t have to hold particular beliefs about women’s competencies or role in a society. In order to count as a misogynist a man merely has to behave in a way that involves policing woman’s behaviours; of punishing them when they fail to act according to dominant patriarchal standards etc.

Manne conceptualises misogyny as follows:

Rather than conceptualising misogyny from the point of view of the accused, at least implicitly, we might move to think of it instead from the point of view of its targets or victims. In other words, when it comes to misogyny, we can focus on the hostility women face in navigating the social world, rather than the hostility men (in the first instance) may or may not feel in their encounters with certain women- as a matter of deep psychological explanation, or indeed whatsoever.” (Kate Manne ‘The Logic of Misogyny’ p. 59)

In the above quote Kate Manne’s use of the term “target” is ambiguous.  When you say that one person makes another person a target of violence this typically implies some kind of intentionality. Does a dog target a rat when it attacks it? In a sense it does target the rat to some degree. But does the dog conceptualise the rat and act on these conceptualisations? This is unclear; see Brandom (1995), Davidson (1990), versus Fodor (1975) for debates on this issue. But nobody would argue that a hurricane targets the island it lands on. The hurricane’s behaviour isn’t intentional behaviour so the hurricane cannot be said to target an Island it hits. When Manne speaks of ‘targets’ of misogyny, she notes that we shouldn’t focus on the psychological states of the agents who ‘target’ women. Conceptually this seems confused. If psychological states are barred then how can we distinguish between a hurricane ‘targeting’, versus a dog targeting, versus a human targeting? It would seem that by focusing on the logic of the situation Manne is ignoring very real distinctions. Her sidestepping psychological explanations seems to imply a simply behaviouristic explication; x occurs and it has consequences for y; but her use of the word ‘target’ seems to slip in intentionality and moral judgement.

So is Manne guilty of a contradiction in her explication of misogyny? I don’t think so. Manne seems to be gesturing towards what Dennett calls ‘competence without comprehension’. Dennett explicates competence without comprehension in terms of free floating rationales. A free floating rationale is pretty much a paradigm of Manne’s ‘Logic of Misogyny’. A Cuckoo egg is placed in a nest of another bird. When the Cuckoo is hatched it typically systematically pushes the eggs of the bird whose nest they have landed in out of the nest. It is clear that the Cuckoo doesn’t represent rival eggs in the nest as rivals to be destroyed. The Cuckoo is born with competence to destroy rivals without having comprehension as to why he behaves as he does.

On Manne’s conception of the ‘Logic of Misogyny’ it is similar to the Cukoo’s behaviour. But it is not identical. Manne obviously isn’t saying that misogynists are identical to Cuckoo’s or stotting Deer. On Manne’s picture some Misogynists may represent their misogynist views and consciously act on them. Some Misogynists may be partly conscious of their views but they may be acting on unconscious frustrations (a deep routed psychological contempt for women). But while it is difficult to disambiguate whether behaviour is intentionally planned, an unconscious strategy, or an innate programme created by natural selection; we can abstract from these messy details if we focus on the structural situation and who it benefits.

The ‘who benefits’ approach; has yielded an incredible amount of results for Ethno-Scientists. Ethnologists aren’t always concerned with philosophical distinctions. When they study ethnology they are often ambiguous as to whether they are speaking of conscious non-verbal thought, unconscious computations, or free floating rationales. Nonetheless, ethnologists still manage to study the behaviour of non-human animals and discover who benefits.

Though Manne doesn’t use this logic she also seems to be discussing the issue of who benefits. And in the issue of who benefits; she correctly notes that the beneficiaries are typically white western heterosexual men. Those who deny the validity of Manne’s understanding of misogyny must accept that she is using  similar logic that ethnoscientists use. If they want to attack Manne’s approach they need to extend their critique to the study of all animal behaviour.

The Burning of Bridget Cleary

With these preliminaries aside it I think it is worth thinking through a particular case that exhibits what Manne was worried about. The case I am talking about is a horrific murder that occurred in 1895 in Tipperary in Ireland. Bridget Cleary a twenty six year old woman was murdered by her husband. Her husband Michael Cleary was aided and abetted in the wife’s murder by his wife’s father and by neighbours and other family members of Bridget Cleary. The murder was horrific and made headlines around the world. Domestic violence was common in Ireland at the time Bridget Cleary was murdered and a husband murdering his wife while not an everyday disturbance; wasn’t entirely unheard of either. The reason the murder made worldwide headlines wasn’t because a husband murdering his wife was considered shocking; rather it was his reason for murdering her. Cleary murdered his wife because he believed she was a changeling who fairies had left in place of his wife. Furthermore, this belief which Cleary held wasn’t a lone delusion he held, the story of changelings being left in place of people was a folk myth in Ireland of the time.  Changelings were traditionally used in folk stories to explain strange behaviour of members of the family; neighbours, friends etc. Today we sometimes hear parents say that their child was developing normally and that when the child got a vaccine he developed autistic symptoms. In Ireland through-out the medieval period and up until the late 19th century, if a child appeared to suddenly change his behaviour there was no concept of autism, nor any mythology of vaccines causing autism, for people to fall back on. People though did have a system of folk beliefs to rely on which told of fairy abductions and people being replaced by changelings to explain the otherwise inexplicable behaviour of their children. Though the changeling myth was sometimes used in relation to children with various developmental disabilities, it could also be used to explain someone who had a stroke. Even today with modern science and some very effective therapies; family members of someone who has had a stroke have to face up to the person post-stroke being an entirely different person than pre-stroke. In medieval Ireland when people in general had such poor understanding of science, a concept such as a stroke would have been unknown to the peasant class. A woman could go to bed with her husband and wake up to find him unable to speak and move half his body. Again the notion of fairy abduction offered an explanation of a kind. The person who you woke up beside who could no longer talk and couldn’t move half his body was a changeling; the real husband was “away with the fairies”.

The events leading up to Bridget’s murder began innocuously enough, while out on a delivery Bridget  was caught in the rain and developed symptoms that which her doctor later diagnosed as mild bronchitis. When Bridget was having trouble recovering from her illness, her husband Michael contacted a doctor to see her, and a priest to see her, as well as a local fairy doctor[1] Jack Dunne. The doctor didn’t seem to be overly worried that Bridget’s illness was very serious and he prescribed some medicine for her. The priest bizarrely, gave Bridget last rights (a Catholic ceremony reserved for terminally ill patients), despite the doctors good prognosis. However, it was the fairy doctor who set the tragic turn of events in place. Upon seeing Bridget in her sick bed he pointed and said “that is not Bridgie Boland[2], before turning and leaving the house. This behaviour from a fairy doctor was taken as evidence by Michael Cleary that the person in his bed was no longer his wife but was a changeling left by the fairies.

Bridget’s mild case of bronchitis was treatable with the medicine of the time. But a variety of different events conspired to make things spiral out of control. Despite multiple attempts to get the doctor to see Bridget it was days till the doctor arrived. The priest giving last rights implied that she was dying and in Ireland of the time a priest’s word would have been as trusted as highly as a doctor. This state of affairs would have led to Michael Cleary panicking and possibly resulted in his susceptibility to believing Jack Dunne’s story of the fairy abduction and replacement with a changeling. The doctor didn’t seem overly interested in Bridget Cleary and didn’t turn up for days and when he did he smelled of Alcohol, and the priest seemed to have given her up as dead. Michael Cleary’s disorganised mind may have believed that Jack Dunne’s fairy story was the best explanation and way of saving her. On the day that he murdered his wife Cleary’s father died and this didn’t help Cleary’s mental state.

Before continuing I should note that the above paragraph could be construed as a paradigm case of what Kate Manne calls himpathy “the flow of sympathy away from the female victims toward their male victimizers” (ibid p. 23). When discussing himpathy Manne notes that it involves:

“In the case of male dominance, we sympathize with him first, effectively making him into the victim of his own crimes” ( ibid p. 201)

It could be argued that by noting the role the doctor, the priest, and the witch doctor played in Bridget’s murder, and the death of Michael Cleary’s father I am trying to elicit sympathy for him; portraying poor Michael Cleary as a confused victim of his own crime while ignoring the real victim Bridget Cleary. This is not my intention I am merely setting up the circumstances under which the brutal crime was committed; before detailing the actual crime; I will later discuss what this crime reveals about the logic of misogyny.

With dwindling faith in medical science Michael Cleary followed Jack Dunne’s advice and obtained a fairy remedy which was supposed to be a cure for his wife’s ailment. The remedy was a collection of herbs that he boiled in milk; he then tried to force his wife to drink the remedy. Because of the horrendous taste of the drink Bridget refused to drink it. In response to this Michael threatened to burn her with a hot poker if she didn’t drink the remedy immediately. Michael then (with the help of visiting neighbours) pinned Bridget to the bed and her arms were held and the drink was forced down her throat. While she was being threatened and forced to drink the potion, urine was thrown on her intermittently, as part of a ritual to remove the supposed changeling. She was asked continually “are you the daughter of Patrick Boland?”, while they tried to force the potion down her throat. They eventually dragged her down to the fire and threatened to throw her in it if she didn’t answer their questions correctly and drink the potion. Near the end of the night with Bridget exhausted, tired and terrified, they seemed to temporally accept that she wasn’t a changeling and Bridget was allowed sleep.

The next morning at 7am Michael contacted the local priest and got him to say mass for Bridget. Later that evening Michael started forcing her to drink holy water. She was offered a cup of tea, and he made her partake in a ritual where she had to eat a slice of bread and answer “Are you Michael Cleary’s husband?”, this was supposed to be done three times; she did it twice but refused on the third time. Cleary flung her to the floor and began forcing the food into her; he continued with the assault, ripping her clothes off. He lit her clothes on fire and emptied the paraffin oil all over her. Bridget lay there burning to death.

                 Part 3: Understanding the Murder

Bridget’s ordeal was so horrifying that it is hard to even understand it today. Seemingly as a result of her husband’s strange folk beliefs in fairies Bridget was force fed, threatened, abused, and eventually burned to death. What could explain such a horrific murder? It is tempting to seek an answer in terms of the internal thought processes of Michael Cleary; however, there is little reason to think that at this remove we can extrapolate what Michael’s exact thought process was when he committed the murder[3]. However we can understand the murder in terms of cultural systems and who they benefit

Strangulation and Force Feeding

“But Bridget Cleary was the one who ended up dead. She had accumulated power, both economic and sexual, it seems, far in excess of what was due to a woman of her age and class, and when the balance tipped, all anger flowed towards her.” ( ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary’. p. 136)

In the introduction to her ‘The Logic of Misogyny’, Kate Manne discussed the case of strangulation. She noted that strangulation is typically called choking, but that this terminology is incorrect. Choking involves an internally obstructed airway, where the airway is obstructed by an external object, where as strangulation is caused by external pressure exerted on the throat or the neck (Manne: ‘Logic of Misogyny’ p.1). Such strangulation is a common form of domestic violence which can sometimes lead to death. Strangulation is predominantly a male type of violence that occurs in all known cultures and socio-economic groups (ibid p. 2).

Manne makes the following point about strangulation:

Strangulation is torture. Researchers draw a comparison between strangulation and waterboarding, both in how it feels-painful, terrifying-and its subsequent social meaning. It is characterizes as a demonstration of authority and domination.[4]” (ibid p. 3)

Because of the gendered nature of strangulation and the fact that it is a type of torture used to implement a type of social control it is a paradigm case of misogyny for Manne. As we saw above Manne understanding of misogyny is non-psychological. Whatever the reasons the man may give to justify his use of strangulation, from the point of view of behaviour it is a form of torture that serves to control the victim and punish her for violating some implicit patriarchal laws.

There are aspects of Bridget Cleary’s murder that fit Manne’s discussion of the logic of misogyny. As we saw above Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband with the help of her father and neighbours because they thought she was a changeling who was left by the fairies in replacement of the real Bridget. In 1895 in rural Ireland belief in fairies still persisted though the belief was becoming less and less prevalent.

When Michael Cleary murdered his wife Bridget Cleary he didn’t strangle her; instead he brutally assaulted her and then burned her to death. Prior to murdering his wife; Cleary and his accomplices, engaged in force feeding her a herb/milk remedy, holy water and bread. Bridget Cleary’s husband was forcing her to swallow food against her will, the subjective terror of choking on food forced into ones throat would be similar to the horror of being strangled or being water boarded. Furthermore, whatever her husband’s motives; by forcing her to eat something against her will he was establishing dominance and the ritual had social significance; Bridget’s body wasn’t her own it was owned by her husband. Bridget had to answer in a particular way, eat what she was given on threat of violence. Independent of any motives we can impute to Michael Cleary his behaviour was the behaviour of a man controlling body of another human being against their will.

In her seminal book on Bridget Cleary’s murder Angela Bourke noted that the act of holding down Bridget down and forcing food down her throat, was a signal to Bridget and whoever else was watching that Michael Cleary was in charge of Bridget Cleary (‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary’ p. 106). Bridget was described by those who knew her as an attractive, and self confident young  woman.  Unlike the vast majority of women in Ireland at that time Bridget was self sufficient, she had a job as a sewist which earned well and she also earned money from the eggs of the chickens she owned. Michael was living in Bridget’s town near her relatives. After eight years of marriage Bridget and Michael had no children. While not having children would have seemed unusual at the time; a lack of children would have given Bridget more freedom than other women of that era. There were rumours that that both of the Cleary’s were engaged in extra marital affairs.

By the standards of the time Bridget Cleary was an exceptionally confident and free woman. Independent of the motivations underlying Michaels attack on Bridget it illustrated one key point. Michael was in control of Bridget; he was in control of what she ate, how she answered questions, and ultimately he had control over whether she lived or died. Michael’s behaviour was a concrete and horrific instance of the logic of misogyny. Bridget had more freedom than her peers and Michael’s behaviour was a way of policing her behaviour and putting her in her place. When she didn’t accept that place the result was her death. As Angela Bourke noted:

“Her refusal to eat what he gave her had sinister implications for the body politic within which they lived. It was not so very different in its significance from the force-feeding of suffragists and other prisoners by state authorities in later years”. (ibid p. 107)

Against this background we can see that independent of Michael’s actual views his behaviour was operating as a form of misogynist policing force punishing Bridget for not conforming to societal standards.

Even the use of the Fairy and Changeling myth in relation to Bridget may not have been entirely coincidental. The Fairy myth was used in a variety of different circumstances. It was used to label those who were viewed at the time, as less than human; those we would today label autistic or with a psychiatric disorder, a neurological disorder, learning disability etc. But it was also used to stigmatise women who were considered too assertive, angry or clever (ibid p. 177). Angela Bourke put the point succinctly:

 “The Fairy-belief tradition which is pejoratively called superstition might more positively, if less felicitously, be labelled a vernacular stigma theory. It is precisely a way of labelling people as not quite human, and serves to rationalize the ambivalence or hostility felt towards those who are different.” (ibid p. 207)

It is no wonder then that the fairy myth played a big role in the torture of Bridget Cleary. As a woman who was assertive, and self-sufficient she was a perfect exemplar of what the unconscious misogynistic police would consider a paradigm example of a woman who was away with the Fairies.

Free Floating Rationales

In our above discussion analysed the logic of Michael Cleary’s murder of Bridget. We noted, following Manne, that this logic could be understood independent of his idiosyncratic beliefs. We did this by considering Bridget in relation to her society, what ends Michael’s behaviour achieved as opposed to how he thought about these ends, and we also briefly examined the role that Fairy tales played in facilitating this behaviour. These Fairy Tales are better off thought of meme structures; or free floating rationales which were selected in their particular environment for a variety of reasons. But these reasons need not have been represented by the agents who were moved by these memes.

Looking at some memes we can discern certain uses they had in shaping behaviour:

“Fairy-Legends carry disciplinary messages for women as well as for children, warning them about behaviour considered by a patriarchal society to be unacceptable. Undoubtedly, too, some of them have been used as euphemisms for domestic violence. Roddy Doyle’s novel ‘The Woman Who Walked into Doors’ takes its title from such a euphemism in modern life. A woman in nineteenth-century rural Ireland who had obviously been beaten might explain the marks of violence as having been inflicted by fairy abductors, while a violent husband might account for his actions as loss of patience with a fairy interloper.” ( Angela Bourke: ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary’ p. 37)

Patricia Lysaght in her ‘The Banshee: The Irish Death Messanger’, noted a similar pattern in ‘The Banshee’ myth where the mythology was used to influence human behaviour:

“Many of the variants stress that the encounter with the being and the improper actions towards her are the result of a dissipated life- being out late at night carousing and card-playing or the like…the legend also teaches the value of good behaviour in stressing that those who are violent, discourteous towards women or given to drunkenness and late hours may run great risks. The Lesson not to pick up combs and such-like objects accidentally found is also spelled out, especially to children…” (Lysaght ‘The Banshee’ pp. 179-181)


Many of these idiosyncratic myths and fairy stories were simply adopted because their hosts found them catchy. But a lot of them were shaped because those in their environment found them useful for shaping behaviour. In a patriarchal society a lot of this behaviour would have been shaped to serve those in power e.g. men. It is for this reason that we need to carefully study our current mythologies and see how they are structured and most importantly who they benefit?

[1] A fairy doctor was an Irish equivalent of a witch doctor.

[2] Boland was Bridget’s maiden name prior to marring Michael Collins.

[3] There is little reason to think there is a fact of the matter about what Michael Cleary was thinking when he committed the murder; see Quine ‘Word and Object’ 1960 and Rosenberg ‘How History Gets Things Wrong’ 2018.

[4]  Manne cites the work of Sorenson et al (2014) “A Systematic Review of the Epidemiology of NonFatal Strangulation, a Human Rights and Health Concern” as evidence that strangulation is a form of torture.

Jordan Peterson, Dan Dennett and the Banshee


In this blog-post I will consider the nature of archetypes (as defended in different ways by Jung and Peterson and memes (as defended by Dan Dennett), and I will evaluate the evidence for them. I will then outline the Irish folk-myth of the Banshee and discuss whether memes or archetypes offer the most compelling evidence for the nature of the myth.

                                      Part 1: JUNGIAN ARCHETYPES

Jung being an agnostic about the existence of God and a person who heavily emphasised his own direct experiences mean that in popular mind he is viewed as a pseudo-scientist. When he speaks about religious archetypes being inescapable even for those who describe themselves as atheists he is sometimes interpreted as a religious mystic. Hence in the imagination of some of Jung’s critics, his arguments for the collective unconscious, and archetypes are viewed as religiously motivated speculation. Jung though considered archetypes and the collective unconscious empirical claims which could be justified on scientific grounds.

Freud’s primary focus was on the repressed unconscious. On Freud’s conception human children are animals with aggressive and sexual drives, while at the same time being defenceless members of a social group that indoctrinates them. As the child grows and develops in their social and familial groups they will eventually learn to repress some of these aggressive and sexual urges. However, the urges, though unconscious; can still play a role in the subject’s life, even though they may not be aware of these impulses. A lot of Freud’s therapeutic work was focused on helping people become aware of dramas from their early childhood that they were still unconsciously playing out in their adult life. Freud did leave a role for the unrepressed and instinctual unconscious but his primary emphasis was on repressed unconscious states and how they affected behaviour.

Jung believed that Freud underestimated the importance of the collective unconscious. For Jung the collective unconscious was a set of instinctive patterns that is shared by all humans. These instinctive patterns may never have been conscious, but according to Jung these instincts drive our conscious behaviour in ways we are entirely unaware of. Jung argues that it is the job of the psychotherapist to bring these instinctive patterns to consciousness. He argues that the archetype is very similar to the collective unconscious; and that one could consider archetypes as unconscious images of the instincts themselves (Jung: Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious p. 44).

Jung proposed the existence of Archetypes in relation to his theory of dreams. Freud’s famous “discovery” that dreams had an unconscious significance was related to his own analysis of a dream he had which revealed Oedipal fantasies of his in relation to his mother. Freud turned his interpretation of dreams into a developmental story where it is a universal feature of children as their lives unfold. Jung accepted Freud’s interpretation of some dreams as revealing Oedipal conflicts. However, according to Jung, a close analysis of his patient’s dreams revealed a series of patterns which corresponded to universal motifs that turned up in the world’s mythologies. Jung prided himself in being a scholar who read widely in mythologies and religions in both eastern and western cultures and discovered universal patterns in this diverse literature. Furthermore, Jung claimed, that when analysing the dreams of patients their dreams sometimes revealed details of ancient mythologies which the patient had never experienced in their daily life:

“Consequently, we must look for motifs which could not possibly be known to the dreamer and yet behave functionally in his dream in such a manner as to coincide with the functioning of the archetype known from historical sources.” ( Jung ‘The Concept of the Collective Unconscious’ p. 49)


Jung reasoned that if the patient never encountered the material in his daily life but exhibited some unconscious knowledge of the myth it is a reasonable assumption that the patient’s knowledge of the myth was innate[1]. His argument could be seen as a crude version of what Chomsky would call a poverty of stimulus argument. A person acquired knowledge of x but they don’t ever encounter x in their environment therefore it is impossible they learned x, hence x must be innate knowledge. In Chomsky’s case he provides precise syntactic constructions which he claimed children could go much or all of their life without encountering, and linguists have corpora to study the actual linguistic environment of children. And they have mathematical modellers who can design learning models which can be used to prove whether it is possible for a learner to acquire x given the data they are exposed to. Jung never articulated his argument for innate archetypes in this clear a manner. Hence it is harder to test his claims to either refute or confirm them. Furthermore given that Jung claims that these motifs are universal themes in our myths it is hard to give much credence to his claim that people never experience these universal myths.

Jung didn’t just rely on a poorly worked out poverty of stimulus argument to justify his belief in archetypes. He also argued that the concept had a long pedigree and was justified by the ethno-science of his time. He correctly noted that archetype concept was originally postulated by Plato. As every first year philosophy student knows, Plato argued that humans have innate ideas of concepts such of Justice, equality etc. Like Jung when arguing for innate ideas, Plato relied on poverty of stimulus arguments. In his Meno dialogue Plato illustrates Socrates getting an illiterate slave to demonstrate knowledge of geometry through just asking the slave questions. Plato draws the conclusion that since the slave was never taught geometry and yet demonstrated an understanding of geometry it is clear that the slave has some kind of innate knowledge of it[2].

Plato’s arguments were criticised by Aristotle amongst many others. But a primary reason that Plato’s arguments weren’t accepted was because he had no compelling explanation of where this innate knowledge came from. Jung noted that with the theory of evolution we have a good explanation of innate knowledge in the form of instincts. Jung goes on to describe his view as a combination of the views of Kant and Plato (Jung ‘The Concept of the Archetype’ p.77). Strangely enough Jung doesn’t touch on the rationalist/empiricist debate on innate ideas that Locke and Leibniz had. Jung skips from Plato right up to Kant; this is a strange move, given the influence the rationalist-empiricist debate had on Kant.

What is even stranger is that when he is criticising Plato’s argument Jung does so from the point of view of an empiricist:

“Were I a philosopher, I should continue in this Platonic strain and say: Somewhere, in “a place beyond the skies,” there is a prototype or primordial image of the mother that is pre-existent and supraordinate to all phenomena in which the “maternal,” in the broadest sense of the term, is manifest. But I am an empiricist, not a philosopher; I cannot let myself presuppose that my peculiar temperament, my own attitude to intellectual problems, is universally valid. Apparently this is an assumption in which only the philosopher may indulge, who always takes it for granted that his own disposition and attitude are universal…” (Jung ‘On the Concept of the Archetype’ p.75)

There is a lot to unpack in the above quote. Firstly Jung is correctly attacking Plato’s belief that innate ideas come from some abstract realm that we lived in during a previous life. Jung is surely correct that this is a poor idea. But Jung not only attacks Plato for coming to his unwarranted conclusion; Jung says that Plato came to the absurd conclusion BECAUSE he was a philosopher.

A possible interpretation of the above Jung claim is that he is criticising Plato for engaging in idle speculation of a type that cannot be tested empirically. Jung seemed to believe that a correct scientific approach would have been to acknowledge that we have innate understanding of certain universal concepts without projecting these universal concepts into some abstract realm.

There is some substance to Jung’s criticism of Plato. But in Plato’s defence he believed that since he had discovered innate concepts it was up to him to explain where these concepts came from. His explanation may not seem compelling to us with the benefit of two thousand years of accumulated knowledge but it was a nice attempt to explain otherwise inexplicable phenomena. Now with our knowledge of modern biology and evolutionary science those compelled by Plato’s argument for innate ideas can nest them within evolutionary science.

Jung though stretches his criticism of Plato to all Philosophers who he charges with assuming that their own idiosyncratic nature reflects facts about the cosmos. Jung then distinguishes himself from philosophers by calling himself an empiricist. Now as is well known; empiricism is a philosophical position associated with three philosophers; John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. Empiricism is a philosophical system that argues that all our knowledge claims are justified by reference to experience. For the empiricist while the philosopher should theorise freely; his theories can only be judged true or false when faced with the tribunal of experience.

When Jung argues that he is not a philosopher he is an empiricist this will raise eyebrows. To say that one is not a philosopher because one holds a particular philosophical epistemology sounds very strange. Nonetheless, there are ways that in which one could try to justify the claim that one is not a philosopher but an empiricist. It could be argued that empiricist epistemology is the epistemology used in scientific theorising, it’s pragmatic success has led to empirical science; and empiricists nowadays are scientists who don’t have any use for philosophical speculation. However, there is little reason to think that the above sketchy unimpressive argument is what Jung had in mind. In fact as we will explore in a minute there is little reason to think that Jung’s position is actually a form of empiricism at all.

While Jung believed that Plato was wrong in his explanation of the nature of our innate ideas he still thought that Plato was correct that innate ideas existed. Jung was impressed with Kant’s arguments against metaphysics, or rather, Kant’s argument that metaphysics can still exist but it must give up the proud name of ontology. Kant’s Copernican revolution in philosophy involved  the claim that philosophy couldn’t discover the ‘thing-in-itself’ which existed beyond our mode of cognition, rather the job of the philosopher was to discover the a-priori structures that were the conditions of possibility of our making any knowledge claims whatsoever.

Jung strongly endorses Kant’s arguments:

“Significantly enough, it is Kant’s doctrine of categories, more than anything else, that destroys in embryo every attempt to revise metaphysics in the old sense of the word, but at the same way paves the way for a re-birth of the Platonic spirit. If it be true that there can be no metaphysics transcending human reason, it is no less true that there can be no empirical knowledge that is not already caught and limited by the a priori structure of cognition.” ( Jung ‘The Concept of the Archetype’ p.76)

The above quote seems to place Jung in a very strange position he is labelling himself an empiricist while arguing that a form of transcendental idealism is the philosophical position he adopts.

To call oneself a Kantian and an empiricist is to use idiosyncratic language that just invites confusion. Kant after all famously thought that both rationalist and empiricist epistemologies were incomplete and needed to be replaced by Kant’s transcendental philosophy. How far Jung wanted to follow this Kantian turn is unclear; it is probable that Jung was just situating his views with Kant and Plato because of the prestige these thinkers are held in by academics. It is like as if Jung were saying to “look my archetype idea isn’t that crazy; it has eminent philosophical pedigree, my views are partially in line with Kant and Plato, though unlike them I can ground my archetypes in biology and psychology”.

When Jung called himself an empiricist and then went on to equate his views with two philosophers paradigmatically opposed to empiricism he appears to be confused. However, Jung can be rescued from the charge of confusion; a charitable interpretation of Jung’s claims is that while he found things he agreed with in Kant and Plato, Jung believed that they had discovered only partial truths. In order to further develop the arguments of Plato and Kant one must turn to the study of empirical psychology. When Jung was calling himself an empiricist he would have been more accurate to note that his views are grounded in empirical psychology. That this is the interpretation that Jung intended can be seen in the quote below:

“There is an a priori factor in all human activities, namely the inborn, preconscious and unconscious individual structure of the psyche. The pre-conscious psyche-for example, that of a new born infant- is not an empty vessel into which, under favourable conditions, practically anything can be poured. On the contrary, it is a tremendously complicated, sharply defined individual entity which appears indeterminate to us only because we cannot see it directly. But the moment the first visible manifestations of psychic life begin to appear, one would have to be blind not to recognize their individual character, that is, the unique personality behind them.” (ibid p. 77)

The above quote could have been written by Noam Chomsky or Steven Pinker, the position is arguing that humans aren’t blank slates created entirely from culture but have a specific nature they inherit that partially determines how we develop as individuals. So despite Jung’s strange use of philosophical language his meaning is quite clear. There are innate biological archetypes that determine the way humans structure the data of experience. As we saw above though, Jung’s arguments for these archetypes relied on vague poverty of stimulus arguments, and appeals to the authority of a couple of famous philosophers.

In fairness to Jung despite the shakiness of his archetypal story he does present (limited) evidence to support it. In Jung’s years of extensive analysis with patients he claims have discovered themes in their dreams which had identical motifs which occurred in obscure texts that the patient couldn’t have read. Furthermore some evolutionary psychologist’s today claim to have found evidence for universal themes in our myths. (See: Robert King ‘A Regiment of Monstrous Women: Female Archetypes and Life History Theory’ 2016). So there is some evidence from disciplines outside of analytical psychology which support Jung’s conjectures about archetypes.

One of the strongest supporters of Jung’s archetypal story is the clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. In order to flesh out Jung’s take on archetypes with the strongest possible evidence in the next section I will discuss Peterson’s take on archetypes and the evidence he presents to justify the postulation of their existence.



Part 2: Jordan Peterson’s conception of Archetypes

Peterson launched a large scale and compelling defence of archetypes in his 1999 book ‘Maps of Meaning’. A clinical psychologist by training Peterson primarily used evidence from developmental psychology to support his belief in the existence of archetypes. One aspect of Peterson’s book that is surprising is the lack of evidence he garners from the work of evolutionary psychologists such as Cosmides and Tooby (1992), Pinker (1994, 1997) etc when defending archetypes. Today as a proud member of the IDW Peterson goes out of his way to stress agreement with the work of Steven Pinker, Brett Weinstein, Geoffrey Miller etc. But in his ‘Maps of Meaning’ Peterson never really engages with Evolutionary Psychology at all.

Evolutionary Psychologists who were writing at around the time that Peterson was writing his ‘Maps of Meaning’ were arguing for massive modularity in which the brain used different encapsulated processing units for: language, folk psychology, vision, folk physics etc. Evolutionary psychologists were busy working on constructing theories about how these modules were selected for in the environment of our ancestors and how these modules were dissociable. Thus a person through a developmental disorder would not develop the ability to use the folk psychology module, but could have a functioning folk physics module. This evolutionary psychology would seem to be perfect for a Jungian like Peterson who was interested in an updated empirical defence of Jung.

However, for whatever reason, in his ‘Maps of Meaning’ we don’t find any real engagement with evolutionary psychology. Nor does Peterson engage with the work of developmental psychologists like Sue Carey, or Liz Spelke whose studies into infant cognition were being used to argue that infants having innate concepts of number, object, causation etc. Carey and Spelke’s work involved detailed experimental evidence that could be used to support Jung’s concept of archetypes. Likewise, the work of evolutionary psychologists like Pinker, Cosmides and Tooby offered support for Jung’s claim that there were a-priori constraints on the way we interpret the world.

Another avenue that Peterson could have gone to for support of Jung’s concept of archetypes was in the work of cognitive scientists Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor who in different ways argued for innate concepts which somewhat supported a Jungian take on archetypes[3]. But Peterson made use of none of these theorists in defence of Jungian archetypes. Instead Peterson defended archetypes from the point of view that we would today call enactivism.

                                           Peterson’s Enactivism

One interesting aspect of Peterson’s theorising is his heavy emphasis on actual behaviour and its consequences. One of the central philosophical texts of the twentieth century was Quine’s magnum opus ‘Word and Object’ which amongst other things offered a naturalist/behaviourist explanation of how people managed to refer to objects in the external world. Quine, infamously, took the child’s ability to achieve objective reference to be parasitic on the child’s mastery of the syntax of quantification. Peterson though considered the question from the point of view of the evolution of the species. On Peterson’s picture humans don’t typically use language in the referential manner of the empirical sciences. Rather language is a tool that is used to cope with the flux of experience.

Peterson’s views on linguistic usage are primarily derived from the work of George Lakoff, and the later Wittgenstein etc. In a foot note where he discusses Wittgenstein; Peterson makes the following point:

“This means that determinate experience must be considered an emergent property of behaviour to a degree that is presently unspecifiable…The word itself, as case in point, can no longer reasonably be regarded as a “label” for a “thing” (Wittgenstein, L. 1968). The notion that a concept is a label for an object is nothing but a slightly higher order version of the same error. Wittgenstein pointed out, essentially, that our sense of unified “thing” is not simply given. We tend to think of the objects we perceive as “being there” in some essential sense; but we see the tree before the branches. Despite this conceptual phenomenon, the tree has no objective precedence over the branches (or the leaves, or the cells that make up leaves, or the forest etc…Wittgenstein solved the “words are not labels for objects” problem by positing that a word was a tool. A word plays a role in a game and is a kin to the chessmen in chess…Wittgenstein was driving at a general principle; an object is defined even perceived (categorized as a unity rather than a multiplicity), with regard to its utility as a means to a given end. In a basic sense an object is a tool or an obstacle… What can reasonably be parsed out of the environmental flux as an object is therefore determined in large part by the goal we have in mind while interacting with that flux.” (ibid p. 477)

It is worth looking closely at the above passage and picking apart its meaning. Peterson is emphasising the pragmatic nature of word usage for people as they go about their daily activities. But he is also making a point about the cognitive processes we use to understand the world around us. On his picture we view things under an aspect depending on what we want to do with the objects we are engaging with. Peterson’s take on the topic is thus far a sensible one. Our minds don’t mirror the external world as a result of some kind of structural isomorphism, rather we as embodied creatures cope with the flux of experience as we explore our environment. The world appears to us because of our embodied nature and interests and needs as we interact with our environment:

“Brain structure necessarily reflects embodiment, despite the archaic presumption of the independence of spirit and matter (or soul and body, or mind and body), because the body is, in a primary sense, the environment to which the brain has adapted…The combination of hand and eye allowed human beings to experience and analyze the (emergent) nature of things. This ability, revolutionary as it was, was dramatically extended by application of hand-mediated, spoken (and written) language.” (ibid pp. 63-65).

The above picture emphasises our body as an active tool to cope with our environment not a passive mirror reflecting some “thing-in-itself”.

Peterson isn’t denying that we can use language to pick out objects in our environment; he is just noting that reference in the language of our evolutionary ancestors wouldn’t have had the precise referential apparatus that we take for granted in science. He draws a nice distinction between what the child learns when he is learning the meaning of a particular word and the connotations that the word will have. Thus the child will learn the meaning of the word ‘chair’; in other words what set of things in the environment the word picks out. But the child will also learn the emotional resonances of the term chair. The child will associate the term with the emotional experiences he has had with the term ‘chair’ e.g. the child will unconsciously register the parents scolding and praise around his interaction with chairs.

So there is a dual aspect of the child’s understanding of a term. It is helpful to think of this distinction in relation to some key terms in the philosophy of language. Peterson is not an analytic philosopher; in his ‘maps of meaning’ he cites only two analytic philosopher’s the later Wittgenstein, and Ryle[4]. It is a great pity that Peterson doesn’t engage with Analytic Philosophy more given the incredible amount of work that has been done on linguistic meaning over the last 140 years. It is beyond the scope of this piece to go into a detailed analysis of the philosophy of language, however it will be helpful to consider Peterson’s views in relation to two different conceptions of reference in natural language.

We saw above that Peterson distinguishes between the reference of a term that is socially learned and the emotional connotations that the child will have to the term. In the philosophy of language there is a debate between referential theories of meaning (Kripke, Putnam) and descriptive theories of meaning (Frege, Wittgenstein, Searle). When Peterson speaks about a child learning the meaning of chair he is ambiguous about what that entails. In one sense it could be argued that Peterson is ambiguous about the issue because it is irrelevant to his purposes. However, it is worth exploring the issue a bit as it has connections to his distinction between reference and emotional connotation.

As we mentioned above Peterson was heavily influenced by the work of the cognitive linguist George Lakoff. Lakoff’s (1987) work was highly critical of the objectivist paradigm in the philosophy of language and linguistics which tried to understand natural language reference interms of model theory. Lakoff argued (based on a formal proof by Putnam) that the model theory explanation was unsatisfactory as it was logically impossible to fix a unique domain of reference for any model of language that was being used. Lakoff then argued that research in empirical psychology showed a better way to explain linguistic usage. On Lakoff’s picture our language results from our embodied engagement with our environment, and the core of our language is constructed from metaphors drawn primarily from our embodied experience.

Peterson’s philosophy of language, which is based on the work of Wittgenstein and Lakoff, is largely of the pragmatist variety. On Peterson’s world view language users typically don’t use language in an explicitly referential manner rather they use language for intersubjective communication. Words have meaning on Peterson’s world view but the meaning isn’t provided by referring to mind independent objects. Since its inception analytic philosophers have also been critical of the use of naive referential semantics. Some of the primary criticisms of naive referentialism have come from those propounding the descriptive theory of meaning. Below are some of the main arguments that descriptivist’s use against naive referentialism:

  • Co-referring terms:


Frege notes that ‘The Morning Star’ and ‘The Evening Star’; refer to the same object. Nonetheless they have different meanings. A person could understand the meaning of ‘the morning star’ and ‘the evening star’ without knowing that they refer to the same object. Conclusion meaning isn’t the same thing as reference.

Clark Kent and Superman refer to the same person so you could substitute Superman for Clark Kent in any sentence without changing the truth value of the sentence. However this characteristic changes when you factor in belief sentences. Thus the sentence ‘Superman is bullet proof’ is true; and if you change the word ‘Clark Kent’ for ‘Superman’ you will get the sentence ‘Clark Kent is bullet proof’ which again is true. However if you add ‘John believes that Superman is Bullet Proof’ let us say that this sentence is true; now if you change ‘Clark Kent’ for ‘Superman’ the truth value of the sentence can change as John may not know that Clark Kent is the same man as superman. The difficulty of substitution of co-extensive words in belief contexts has serious consequences for us when we try to understand the logic of discourse extensionally. However, we need not worry about the logical status of language in our discussion here. The primary point in the above discussion is that the referential status of our words seems to be determined by meanings we attach to the terms.

But what is this meaning we are attaching to words? One way to explicate the meaning of a term is that it consists of a description of the object it refers to. Thus if we take the word ‘Chair’ the meaning attached to it could be { four legged objects that you sit on }.

  • Fictional names:

When I use words to speak about fictional creatures such as a Unicorn, or Sherlock Holmes; it is hard to explicate these words in terms of a referential relation. The words don’t refer to anything in the external world. Nonetheless the words have meaning.

  • The Very Large and the Very Small:

We can speak about sub-atomic particles, and our theories can refer to them, but any reference to them will need to be couched into an incredibly complex conceptual scheme. Likewise we can refer to the entire universe. But referring to the universe is not something that can be done directly; like in the case of sub-atomic particles any reference is going to be deeply enmeshed in a complex conceptual scheme. So with the very large and the very small a direct reference theory of meaning is out.

  • Impossible objects

A clichéd impossible object is a ‘Roundsquare’ the object by virtue of holding contradictory properties cannot exist in the world. Hence it cannot be referred to. Nonetheless it does have meaning. Hence meaning is not equal to reference.


Peterson and Descriptivism

There is a sense in which Peterson is a descriptivist about word meanings. We saw above that his views on meaning are taken from Lakoff and Wittgenstein both of whom emphasised the fact that any ostensive definition will require a lot of stage setting. The stage setting required from Lakoff would be his cognitive models derived from our embodied experience interacting with the world, while Wittgenstein would focus on our shared cultural practices. Peterson is a bit different than either Lakoff or Wittgenstein in one key respect; Peterson believes in archetypes which to some degree determine the limits of our thought.

As we saw above Jung’s archetypes were similar to what modern evolutionary psychologists would call innate concepts. If we try and translate Jung into the language of analytic philosophy; we could argue when a particular situation triggers an archetype the person will end up interpreting the data of experience using an implicit description provided by our evolutionary past. The stage setting that goes into our attempts to pick out objects in our environment is provided by our evolutionary history.

Peterson would agree with Jung that the stage setting that goes into ostensive definition is archetypal in nature; except Peterson would argue that the so called archetypes are patterns of behaviour which we implicitly understand on a procedural level. We can draw out the morals of these patterns of behaviour when we translate them into explicit semantic knowledge:

“It is only after behavioural (procedural) wisdom has been represented in episodic memory and portrayed in drama and narrative that it becomes accessible to “conscious” verbal formulation and potential modification in abstraction. Procedural knowledge is not representational, in its basic form. Knowing-how information generated in the course of exploratory activity, can nevertheless be transferred from individual to individual, in the social community, through means of imitation…Behaviour is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified into religion-and only then criticized in philosophy, provided post-hoc, with rational underpinnings.” (ibid p. 78)

Peterson’s story of archetypes being passed on through behavioural patterns is presented without much in the way of evidence. Nonetheless, with his notion of archetypes as behavioural patterns that are passed down imitatively, Peterson has a theory of behaviour that underlies our linguistic productions. His theory is basically an enactivist-descriptivist story. He even goes as far as to argue that prior to the scientific revolution a few hundred years ago people engaged in their world pragmatically without using objectivist reference at all:

“The consequence of exploration that allows for emotional regulation (that generates security, essentially) is not objective description, as the scientist might have it, but categorisation of the implication of an unexpected occurrence for specification of means and ends. Such categorisation is what an object “is,” from the perspective of archaic affect and subjective experience. The orientating reflex, and the exploratory behaviour following its manifestation, also allows for the differentiation of the unknown into familiar categories of objective reality. However, this ability is a late development, emerging only four hundred-years ago, and cannot be considered basic to “thinking”. Specification of the collectively apprehensible sensory qualities of something-generally considered, in the modern world, as the essential description of reality-merely serves as an aid to the more fundamental process of evaluation, determining the precise nature of relevant or potentially relevant phenomena. (ibid p. 55)

In passage Peterson is noting that our interaction with objects in our world is primarily related to the emotional significance of the object not with the objective features of the object. Emotional associations with the objects we interact is the primary mode of thinking that governs our behaviour. He argues that understanding the objective features of objects beyond their emotional resonances is something we only achieved in the last few hundred years. Our primary experience of the world was through the emotional resonances the objects we engaged with.

Peterson’s historical understanding here is frankly bizarre. In the western philosophical tradition, ancient Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were practically obsessed with discovering what the underlying essence was of objects of our experience; that went beyond the accidental properties of the objects we discovered when we interacted with them. To deny that the primary mode of thinking in Philosophers such as Plato et al was to discover the objective properties of the objects of experience is to misunderstand the philosophical cannon entirely. In fact even pre-Socratic Philosophers such as Anixmendes were constructing scientific theories that attempted to map the objective features of reality. So Peterson’s take on the nature of reference is radically wrong from the point of view of the history of western thought.

An obvious rejoinder to what I have said is that even if Peterson is off by a couple of thousand years about when objective reference became important in human thought he is still correct that emotional engagement with objects radically precedes the human use of words for objective reference. I have some sympathy for this objection. The human species is well over three hundred thousand old so whether it began using objective reference consistently 300 years ago or 3000 years; isn’t really that important, as we are still talking about a blink of an eye from an evolutionary perspective.

While I agree that 3000 years ago is a blink of an eye from the perspective of the age of the species; Peterson doesn’t adopt this view. Typically Peterson argues that Christian myths represent universal patterns of human behaviour; yet Platonic Philosophy antedates Christianity by centuries. At the very least Peterson needs an argument if he wants to argue that Christian beliefs are fundamental patterns of human behaviour but Platonic thought is a late less fundamental add on.

But more importantly Peterson is underestimating how fundamental referential capacities are to linguistic usage. While Peterson is correct to note that our linguistic usage and behaviour is steeped in emotional resonances; nonetheless this is all anchored with perceptual apparatus designed to pick out mind independent objects. We saw above that naive referentialism is out as an explanation of linguistic meaning. Nonetheless, Peterson’s enactivism is ignoring work in neuroscience and developmental psychology which suggests that children are pick out key features of their environment prior to any interaction with these objects (see Carey 2009, Fodor and Pylyshyn 2015). Our referential apparatus are built up from cognitive structures called FINST (fingers of instantiation), which pick out objects in our environment independent of any other cognitive processes:

“One of the main characteristics of visual perception that led Pylyshyn (1989, 2001) to postulate FINSTs is that vision appears not only to pick out several individual objects automatically, but also to keep track of them as they move about unpredictably by using only spatio temporal information and ignoring visible properties of individual objects… Pylyshyn and his students demonstrated in hundreds of experiments (described in Pylyshyn 2001, 2003, 2007 and elsewhere), that observers could keep track of up to four or five moving objects without encoding any of their distinguishing properties (including their motion and the speed or direction of their movement.” (Fodor and Pylyshyn: ‘Mind’s Without Meanings pp. 100-102)

Thus the human brain is structured so that it can automatically lock onto key aspects of its environment, and reference is built up using this basic brain process. The existence of FINSTs doesn’t refute Peterson’s conception of semantics as FINSTs do require some causal interaction with the environment. But it does show that objective reference is not some Johnny come lately resulting from the invention of empirical science; rather it a key feature of the human brain shared by all humans since homo-sapiens evolved over three hundred thousand years ago.

Nonetheless while Peterson may go too far in the degree to which he underplays the importance of reference in human semantic affairs; he is surely right that our engagement with objects will have emotional resonances that we are not aware of.

When trying to justify his belief in the existence of universal archetypes Peterson, like Jung draws research into common themes in world literature. We will discuss these some of this literature in relation to the Banshee later in this blog-post.

Part 3: Dennett on the nature of Memes

As we discussed above archetypes are to some degree accepted by evolutionary psychologists as a way of explaining human behaviour and competences. But within some other types of evolutionary theorising about culture; a different (not necessarily incompatible) tool is used to explain human behaviour. I am of course referring to the concept of a meme coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in (1976), and later popularised by philosopher Dan Dennett (1991, 1995, 2017), and the psychologist Susan Blackmore (1999). The meme concept was developed on analogy with the gene. Just as the gene is a unit of information whose only “aim” is to replicate itself so a meme is a unit of information whose only “aim” is to replicate itself. The gene doesn’t care about the well being of the body it builds, and the meme doesn’t care about the behaviour it builds. Different genes build different bodies which compete for survival in cruel world of natural selection and the same is true of memes. Different memes build different behaviours which will either be successful in replicating the memes or won’t. From a “memes” eye point of view it is not important whether “memes” benefit the organism but whether the memes get themselves spread. In his recent book ‘From Bacteria to Bach and Back’ Dennett noted that memes are not instincts but are ways of behaving that are passed on perceptually. He noted that a paradigm type of meme is a word. Various words formed into sentences can infect us with ideas which will make us behave in various ways. Examples of memes could be religious texts, folk myths, etc. These memes could have deleterious effects on their hosts but as long as they are catchy they will be passed onto others and from a memes eye perspective will be considered fit. Memes are not limited to words. Accents that are mimicked are types of genes, so are styles of dress etc. Dennett lists three key aspects of memes: (1) competence without comprehension: Some cultural features may have what appear to be design features but they may not have an explicit designer. Think about ship designs which are partly designed by selection by the sea (bad designs won’t float). (2) Memes have fitness: As we saw above memes have their own reproductive fitness just like viruses. (3) Memes are informational things: They are prescriptions for ways of doing things that can be transmitted, stored, mutated etc (Dennett ‘From Bacteria to Bach and Back’ p. 221)

In his controversial ‘Consciousness Explained’ Dennett speculated that the self may be a centre of descriptive gravity which consists of memes that are only available to language ready creatures. On Dennett’s picture as different meme structures which we acquire from our environment compete for attention; our consciousness arrives when one of these informational hungry creatures temporarily wins the fame in the brain battle. Leaving aside the use Dennett makes of memes in his controversial theory of consciousness it is fair to say that a lot of evolutionary theorists find the use Dennett et al make of memes to be too superficial.

In the next section I will consider a famous Irish myth ‘The Banshee’ and discuss whether it is best thought of as a meme or an archetype. This is only a particular case study designed to test the explanatory depth of memes and archetypes on a limited cultural phenomena. In order decide between the relative uses of memes versus archetypes thousands of case studies like the one below are needed.




Part 4: The Banshee: an Irish Myth

The Banshee is an ancient Irish myth about a solitary woman who appears before a person’s death; she is usually noticed mournfully wailing outside of the house of the person who is about to die. She typically follows prominent groups of families; two famous families she followed was ‘the Mac’ family and ‘the O’ family (‘The Irish Death Messenger’ p. 55). The Banshee is typically heard (sometimes seen) by family members or neighbours of someone who is about to die. She virtually never appears to the person who is going to die. She typically appears near where the person who is going to die lives; perched on a nearby tree wailing sorrowfully.

The description of her wailing has been compared with the cry of a dog howling, and to the cry of a wild cat trying to attract a mate. However, people have noted that while there is a similarity between the cry of some animals and the Banshee; anyone who has heard the Banshee wail will easily be able to distinguish it from the cry of a mortal creature (ibid. p.73). Another common way of describing the cry of the Banshee was to compare it to the cry of professional keeners. A keening woman was a professional mourner whose job was to watch over and morn for the person who had died. Professional keeners were first noted in writing in the 16th century; however, it is believed the folk tradition of keening antedated these written records by centuries.

Descriptions of the Banshee were not always consistent. Sometimes, though rarely, she was described as a beautiful young woman with long golden hair, while more commonly she is described as a small old woman with long grey hair. One commonality in describing her is her non-erotic appearance; she is never associated with sexual activity (ibid p. 91)[5]. Most descriptions of her say that she was dressed in white clothes and held a comb[6] which she brushed through her long hair.

There were many different folk tales associated with the Banshee; two of which I will discuss below. The first tale involved a man walking home late at night. He sees the Banshee in the field combing her hair. He runs towards her and she drops her comb. He picks up the comb and runs home with it. He then went to bed and was awoken by her screams and the shaking of his house. He realises the Banshee is looking for her comb. He picks up the comb with a pair of metal coal thongs and uses the thong to put the comb on the window sill. The Banshee grabs the comb and he pulls the thongs back into the house. He looks at the thongs and realises that she has ripped off the metal head of the thongs.

In the second folk tale a man is walking home late at night and he sees a woman on a green flag that was outside his house. He approaches the woman (the banshee) and claps her on the back. She puts her hand on her head and lifts him clean off the ground and throws him to the ground. He escapes to his house and goes to sleep. When he wakes up his hair has turned white and the mark of her fingers are indented in his head.

The Origin of the Banshee Myth

The first written record of the Banshee is in an 8th century book called ‘The Cattle Raid of Froech’, which tells of a man called ‘Froech Mac Idaith’ who is wounded by a water monster. While his wounds are being attended to the sound of weeping are heard, and one hundred and fifty beautifully clad women are seen (ibid p. 193). A messenger is sent to ask the women why they weep and they say they are weeping for Froech. Froech is then brought to these women and they carry him away to the other world.

There are aspects of this story that aren’t consistent with the Banshee story; firstly the Banshee is solitary, and the wailing women in ‘The cattle raid of Froech’ are in a large group. Secondly one of the wailing women spoke while the Banshee is rarely described as someone who speaks. However, there is enough of a family resemblance between the wailing women and the Banshee to think that they are connected to the Banshee.

Another early written text which mentions a creature like the Banshee is ‘The Death of Cu Chulainn’. ‘The death of Cu Chulainn can be traced to the 8th century. In it Cu Chulainn is visited by a creature who appears to him in a variety of different shapes; a crow, a hag roasting dog meat, a young woman washing his spoils at a ford as he sets out for his final battle (ibid p. 198). Cu-Chulainn’s druid Cathfad says that the woman is ‘Badh’s daughter’ a creature who is foreboding his death by wailing and washing his spoils (ibid p. 198). Again this creature isn’t identical with the banshee (the banshee is only rarely described a young). But as a female creature who forebodes a person’s death by wailing she has enough of a family resemblance to the folk tale to be counted as an instance of the Banshee myth.

How far back the Banshee myth goes is impossible to say. In her ‘The Banshee’ Patricia Lysaght speculates that the Banshee may have evolved from an earlier myth:

It is tempting to see a connection between the banshee and her kin and a being met with in Old Norse tradition, the fylgja, whose very name who according to many scholars means ‘a follower’. One form of the fylgja is a female spirit who is connected with families and who sometimes appears at deaths but who has a wider function as a guardian spirit and carrier of the luck of the family, in particular of its head.” (ibid p. 55)

The earliest written records of the Banshee are from the eight century around the time the Vikings invaded Ireland. It is unknown whether the Banshee was independently invented in Ireland or if it was derived from Norse Mythology and was modified as a result of unique Irish traditions.

Banshee: As a Meme

The idea of a Banshee as a meme has a lot to recommend it. When we think of it as a mind virus competing for replication with a variety of other mind viruses we can make some sense of the development of the myth and the ultimate death of the myth. When discussing the evolution of Religion; Dennett notes that a key aspect of human psyche is an hair trigger agent detector. This agent detector plays a massive role in our survival as a species. Certainly the prehistory of our species involves the interpreting of pretty much all of nature interms of agency.

This agency detector is a key part of our folk-psychology we use to interpret the data of experience. It isn’t only humans that rely on such an agency detector in interpreting strange phenomena. Thus we often see the amusing spectacle of a dog growling at the wind as a result of confusing the noise of the wind as a potentially dangerous agent. Where the dog differs from the human is that he lacks language. Our human minds chock-a-block with concepts that we can combine in a potentially infinite manner gives a rich scope for judging the nature of the potential agent that startles us. Furthermore we can communicate our experiences and interpretations of our experiences with community and hence spreading memes comes natural to us. Whether the memes get spread or not will depend on the selective environment they are created in; in other words on whether their hosts prefer spreading them to spreading rival memes.

It is perfectly possible to imagine person hearing of the ancient Norse Legend of the Fylgja a Godess who sometimes appears at people’s death, and being fascinated by the myth. Suppose at some point he hears some strange animal noise that sounds like a woman weeping near a friend’s house and the next day by coincidence discovers that his friend has died. He may think back to the myth of the Fylgia godess who sometimes appears at people’s death. So he tells his friends that he heard the Flygja weeping prior to his friend’s death. Thus you have an interesting story that gets spread. Irish people of the time would associate women weeping at someone’s death with the professional keeners; who were typically little old women with grey hair. So the Flygja myth gets modified and instead of a Goddess it is an old woman wailing prior to the death of a member of the community.

Once the myth was retrofitted to suit the minds of a particular Irish community it would be a perfect mind virus that could spread around the country. Of course, in order for memes to spread they had to out compete their rivals, for every myth successfully spread there were plenty of other memes which they out competed. And this competition could be a factor in the death of the Banshee myth over the last hundred years[7], in the last century as travel between different cultures became easier, competition between myths would have been much higher, and stories which enthralled one generation seem dull to the next generation. Patricia Lysaght speculated on other factors that may have contributed to the death of the Banshee myth:

“Of more importance is the fact that increased literacy and greater availability of reading material- books, newspapers and magazines- gradually exposed larger and larger sectors of the population to ideas which would make the question their own values and beliefs…They were to be followed by the radio. Broadcasting started in Ireland in 1926…the old custom of visiting the neighbours at night- the rambling-was abandoned… the number of cars in Ireland increased from 19, 848 in 1925 to 711, 098 in 1984…As telephones became more common many visits which formerly involved being out after nightfall also became unnecessary. People did not need a death-messenger to inform their neighbours or absent family members or relatives of a death. They could be telephoned…the Rural Electrification scheme was initiated in 1947…Light from lampposts and other outside lights which had become increasingly common even in small villages and private house in the country, will no doubt have dispelled many an image, which might otherwise have impressed itself on the observer’s mind as a banshee or some supernatural being…In 1926 only 32% of the population of Ireland lived in towns and cities while the figure for 1981 was almost 56%” ( ibid pp.236-237)

The Banshee myth had a perfect ecological niche in isolate semi-literate communities, lacking in street light, electrified homes etc. However, the myth was less credible than its rivals in the new world and hence it died out. On this way of looking at things the Banshee is a paradigm meme which took hold at a particular time and place and gradually died out; it was a relatively successful meme but lacked the staying power of Christian myths.

One wonders how the myth was spread and taken seriously though. One guy may have heard the wailing noise and coincidently someone died the next day, but this coincidence wouldn’t have happened too often. However, there would be double motivation in people saying they saw the Banshee; one it gave you a kind of local notoriety. But more importantly the Banshee was alleged to only appear to people from important and truly Irish Families. So there would have been some motivation for people to say a Banshee wailed for the death of a loved one; it would have been a social signifier of importance. In this way along with the coincidence of a strange noise preceding a death you would have some families motivated to claim being visited by the Banshee. This would have helped the meme spread from village to village.

The stories around the Banshee also served an implicit moral purpose. All of the main legends around the Banshee involve men out late alone at night and approaching a woman in an inappropriate way. In each of the stories when the man approaches the woman there is typically a price to be paid. So the story may have been used as a way of protecting women from the advance of men late at night. Whether these stories were intentionally created to serve this purpose is difficult to say.

                                 The Banshee: A distorted Great Mother Archetype

As we saw above Peterson’s philosophy of language involves a pragmatic element which notes that we use language to cope with reality as opposed to represent it. For Peterson our language is shot through with metaphors; but he argues that there are central metaphors (archetypes) that structure our great myths:

“The mythological world- which is the world as drama, story, forum for action- appears to be composed of three constituent elements and a “forth” that precedes, and follows and surrounds these three” ( Maps of Meaning p. 105)

On Peterson’s view the three constituent elements are (1) The Great Mother, (2) The Great Father, (3)The Archetypal Hero. And these three constituent elements are surrounded by the great Dragon of Chaos. He justifies this analysis by a close reading some of the world’s great ancient myths. One myth that Peterson focuses a lot of attention on is: the ancient Babylonian Myth of the Enuma Elis. Peterson argues that the Goddess Tiamat is an archetype that represents the great mother. He describes the great mother as follows:

“The Great Mother-the unknown, as it manifests itself in experience- is the feminine deity who gives birth to and devours all. She is unpredictable as it is encountered, and is therefore characterized, simultaneously, by extreme positive and extreme negative valence…The domain of the unfamiliar might be considered the ultimate source of all things, since we generate all of our determinate knowledge as a consequence of exploring what we do not understand” (ibid pp.105-109)

There are elements of the Great Mother archetype that indicate a connection with the Banshee. The Banshee was more than likely derived from a feminine deity: the Fygja. Furthermore, the Banshee signals death, the ultimate unknown; which could be a derivation from the feminine symbol of the unknown: The Great Mother. When Peterson speaks of the negative aspects of the great unknown he does so in stark terms:

 “The great mother-unexplored territory- is the dark, the chaos of the night, the insect, ophidian and reptilian worlds, the damaged body, the mask of anger or terror: the entire panoply of fear-inducing experiences, commonly encountered (and imagined by Homo sapiens…The unknown is the matrix of everything, the source of all birth and the final place of rest. It hides behind our personal identity and our culture; it constantly engenders all that we do, all that we understand, and all that we are…The Great Mother, in her negative guise, is the force that induces the child to cry in the absence of her parents…She is everything that jumps in the night, that scratches and bites, that screeches and howls; she is paralyzing dismay, horror and the screams that accompany madness.” (ibid pp 157-163)

When the great mother is connected with the final place of rest and with howling and screeching one is immediately put in mind of the Banshee which may indicate archetypal origins.

But there is an aspect of the great mother that is missing in the Banshee Myth. The great mother isn’t just associated with death and fear; she is associated with creativity and birth. Creativity and birth are entirely missing from the Banshee Myth. In the archetypal myths the hero engages with the chaos of the great mother at great danger and as a result of dealing with the unknown in an appropriate way the hero emerges changed with new knowledge.

This aspect is entirely missing with the Banshee; encounters with the Banshee typically result in difficulties those who approach her. Encounters with the Banshee typically are warnings against approaching her in an inappropriate manner. This is consistent with Peterson’s reading of the great mother archetype:

“The Great and Terrible Mother, daughter of chaos, destroys those who approach her accidentally incautiously or with the inappropriate attitude, but showers upon those who love her (and who act appropriately) all good things.” (ibid p. 177)

However, encounters with the Banshee never offer exemplars of the great hero, approaching her and emerging changed and enhanced. In the original stories in the eight century the banshee was connected with great heroes like Cu Chulainn. However, as the myth developed the hero became less and less involved in the stories until he disappeared entirely.

On Peterson’s view the Banshee myth didn’t die out because of increased competition from competitors or because of technological advances but because the Banshee was a poor approximation of the archetype of the great Mother which had limited usefulness.


At this stage we can tell somewhat convincing stories that support interpreting the Banshee as a meme and as an archetype. Jordan Peterson has criticised memetic explanations as superficial explanations; however he hasn’t really presented much by way of convincing evidence for the existence of archetypes. Jung’s defences of archetypes rely heavily on sketchy ill worked out poverty of stimulus arguments, and muddled appeals to noble philosophical ancestry. While Peterson’s enactivist model with its emphasis on behavioural patterns learned imitatively isn’t sufficiently differentiated from memetic explanations. Furthermore, Peterson’s interpretations of the various worlds myths involve plausible sounding interpretations which are massively underdetermined by the data of experience (it is trivial to come up with countless alternative interpretations). While Dennett’s memetic explanation amounts to nothing more than an interesting just so story which it is impossible at present to test. In my next blog-post I will consider the myth of the Banshee from the point of view of evolutionary psychology and modern developmental psychology and we will see if we can come up with a more plausible account of the banshee myth.

[1][1] Jung also used psychotic fantasies and the associations of neurotic patients as poverty of stimulus arguments that the patients had evidence of ancient mythological themes which were also found in ancient texts of which the patients had never read or heard of.

[2] See linguist Dan Everett’s ‘Dark Matter of the Mind’ for a criticism of Plato’s argument as relying on leading questions so not really demonstrating anything about innate knowledge.

[3] I am running together a lot of theorists who disagreed with each other on a variety of different points. Fodor and Carey disagreed on the possibly of conceptual change, and Fodor and Pinker disagreed on the amount of concepts that were innate. I am just mentioning these thinkers because they offer possible avenues of support that Peterson strangely didn’t pursue; I am not implying that they make up a homogenous group.

[4] Peterson does discuss the work of Thomas Kuhn throughout the book. However, Kuhn was trained as a physicist and a historian and isn’t strictly speaking an analytic philosopher. Though Kuhn’s work is regularly taught and discussed in all philosophy of science classes. So perhaps he could be considered an honorary analytic philosopher.

[5] In a recent humorous short story by Blindboy she is depicted in a sexual manner. However, when discussing the Banshee we are concerned with the folk traditions surrounding her recent literary depictions of her.

[6] In costal parts of Ireland where there was a prominent myth about mermaids using combs the Banshee wasn’t described as using a comb.

[7] The Banshee myth hasn’t been taken seriously for over a hundred years in Ireland. There have been some films and short stories about the Banshee in the last couple of decades but they bear little relation to the original folk myth. Perhaps these new strands could be viewed as mutations that are striving to compete in a new environment in a way the original strand could not.

Bertrand Russell’s Structural Realism

Russell the Naturalist Pioneer
Russell’s two books ‘The Analysis of Mind’ and ‘The Analysis of Matter’ are massively underrated philosophical texts. As philosophical folklore has it; Russell did brilliant technical work in philosophy between the years of 1903 and 1913 but peaked at that period. Under pressure from criticisms from his student; the young genius Ludwig Wittgenstein, Russell came to realise that he could no longer do serious technical philosophy. According to this philosophical mythology, from 1913 onward Russell worked primarily in the area of popular philosophy, and left real philosophy to the younger generation.
In Russell’s intellectual autobiography he notes that his last major philosophical work ‘Human Knowledge: It’s scope and Limits’ (1948) was viewed by younger philosophers as being merely a quaint outdated attempt at philosophy. In a similar vein, in his brilliant biography of Russell, Ray Monk paints a picture of a Russell post 1920 as out of touch with modern philosophy, engaging with debates with philosophers who were no longer at the cutting edge of the discipline. At the forefront of Monk’s characterisation is that Russell’s treatment of philosophical questions was wedded to an antiquated psychological interpretation of epistemology, while the younger generation of philosophers had moved beyond this approach. Logical Positivists, exemplified by Carnap and Wittgenstein were treating these questions as semantic questions that are best understood interms of logical analysis. On this picture, poor Russell was out of step with the younger generation of philosophers, he was a man of an earlier simpler time.
Monk is certainly correct in characterisation of the state of play for post 1920 Russell in relation to the cutting edge of philosophy of the time. Russell’s views were indeed considered quaint by the younger generation of philosophers. But time has a way of changing things. As every school child knows; Quine’s ‘Two Dogma’s of Empiricism’ cast serious doubts on the neat distinction between philosophy and science. Quine’s arguments convinced a majority of philosophers that the logical positivists attempt to make philosophy a discipline that is somehow outside our overall theory of the world and a judge of it, is unworkable. Quine argued plausibly, that we are all fallible humans with contingent theories about reality that we try to match to experience as best as possible. Quine (1969) convinced a lot of people that epistemology was a branch of empirical psychology, and that any metaphysics would have to be derived from studying the sciences in particular physics. Quine’s conception of philosophy isn’t universally accepted; but it think it is fair to say that it is close to being the standard position in philosophy, and certainly it has far more adherents than the views of the Logical Positivists . Philosophers today such as Noam Chomsky, Dan Dennett, the Churchlands, Don Ross, and James Ladyman are contemporary defenders a type of Quinean Naturalism. Furthermore, in a recent article Ray Monk has noted (somewhat hyperbolically) that Wittgenstein’s reputation amongst contemporary academic philosophers is sharply in decline (Monk ‘The Agony and the Destiny: Friedrich Nietzsche’s descent into Madness’ New Statesman).
Of course whether a majority of philosophers identify as naturalists of a Quinean sort proves very little. The truth of a proposition isn’t decided by a democratic vote. The majority of contemporary philosophers being Russelian naturalists, doesn’t vindicate Russell’s post 1920 turn. Nonetheless it does cast an interesting light on the typical narrative told about Russell. Far from being poor old Bertie who couldn’t keep up with modern trends of the younger philosophers; Russell can actually be considered a pioneer who was ahead of his time. Russell’s later philosophy prefigured Quine’s naturalism, and was arguably superior to Quine’s because Russell’s understanding of science was much deeper.
But narratives aside; it is important to evaluate Russell’s naturalistic conception of philosophy based on its empirical evidence and argumentative structure. Russell’s two books ‘The Analysis of Mind’, and ‘The Analysis of Matter’ were deeply steeped in the sciences of his day in particular behaviouristic psychology, relativity theory, and quantum mechanics. A central claim in both books was that there was a tension between the ontology suggested by both psychology and physics. The psychology of his time was primarily behaviouristic and suggested a picture of the world that was materialistic and mechanistic, while discoveries in physics, such as the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics suggested a picture of the world that sounded less and less materialistic and mechanistic. Russell’s attempt to resolve these seemingly contradictory pictures was to explain both psychology and physics in terms of neutral monism. I have discussed Russell’s take on psychology in earlier blog-posts; in this post I will focus on his understanding of physics. While in my next blog post will be an overall consideration of Russell’s neutral monism.
The Child’s development of his intuitive concept of the physical
When analysing our conception of matter as revealed by discoveries in modern physics Russell sensibly begins with the ontogenesis of our conception of matter. His reasoning being that our intuitive conception of matter may influence scientific theorising on its nature. When discussing infant development Russell noted:
“In this primitive condition, the infant obviously has no conception of an “object.” An “object” for common sense, is something having a certain degree of permanence, and connected with several kinds of sensation… In infants, the most important factor in forming the common-sense notion of an object is the hand eye co-ordination, the discovery that it is possible, often, to grasp what is seen. In this way the visual and tactual spaces become correlated, which is one of the most important steps in the mental growth of an infant.” (ibid p. 143)
On Russell’s view the child begins with no conception of an object and gradually forms a concept of an object through a process linking sight with touch as the child moves about and explores the world. Russell’s picture of how the child develops the concept of an object is intuitively compelling and to some degree prefigures the work of the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and naturalist philosopher Willard Quine. Up until the early seventies a majority of developmental psychologists would have agreed with Russell’s picture of how the child develops their concept of a physical object. Russell argued that:
“Common sense does not initially distinguish as sharply as civilized nations do between persons, animals and things.’’ (ibid p. 149)
Quine in his ‘Word and Object’ and Piaget in his ‘Principles of Genetic Epistemology’ would have found the above claim very congenial.
Since the early seventies, with the work of the developmental psychologist TGR Bower, a different picture has emerged. Piaget’s dim view of the human infant’s ability to form a concept of an object was based on the fact that children didn’t search for objects once they were placed outside of their field of vision. However, beginning with Bower, theorists began to speculate that the reason for infants didn’t search for missing objects, wasn’t because they lacked a concept of an object; but because of problems in coordinating motor movements. To overcome these difficulties researchers used a technique that involved scientists tracking the child’s attention. When children are viewing a scene after a time they become habituated to it, and spend less time studying the scene. Scientists took advantage of this fact and designed experiments where the infants were habituated to a particular scene and then something out of the ordinary happened. When this happened the child would stare longer at the scene; indicating that the infant was surprised by the new occurrence. Using techniques like these to track infant expectations of object behaviour, scientists determined that children have expectations of object permanency, of number (up to 4), contact mechanics, etc.
How to interpret these experiments is still being debated by scientists ( for a detailed discussion see my: ). A lot of the debate centres on whether the evidence which indicates that children have a concept of object as early as 6months old, is evidence that the concepts are innate. Whatever way one decides on this issue, the evidence does indicate that Russell’s views on the ontogenesis of the child’s concept of physical object are not correct. Children exhibit conceptual understanding of physical objects prior to them developing motor skills sufficient for them to coordinate touch with sight.
Nonetheless despite Russell being incorrect in his views on how the child develops her concept of an object; this doesn’t affect his overall philosophical position. Russell’s primary point when discussing how the child develops their concept of an object is to indicate that our intuitive conception of a physical object isn’t identical with our scientific understanding of the physical world.
The ontogenesis of our scientific conception of physical objects.
Russell’s discussion of the scientific conception of matter noted that from the beginning of the scientific revolution (roughly Galileo and Descartes time) the concept of matter was still closely related to our embodied experiences. He argued that our understanding of matter was derived from three bodily sources:
“We may perhaps distinguish three sorts of physics, in relation to the sense-experiences from which their ideas are derived: I will call them muscular physics, touch physics, and sight physics respectively. Of course no one of them has ever existed in isolation: actual physics has always been a mixture of the three…Broadly we may say that sight-physics has more and more predominated, and has achieved an almost complete victory over the others in the theory of relativity” (ibid p. 161)
As we discussed above Russell’s conception of how the child developed their concept of a physical object (through a combination of sight and touch) was incorrect, children have a pre-theoretical concept of an object prior to their development of motor skills. Given the incorrectness of Russell’s concept of how typical humans develop their ordinary language conception of an object, a critic may wonder whether this fact will effect Russell’s conception of how physicists developed their conception of a physical object. Russell’s emphasis touch-physics, and sight-physics etc may put critics in mind of his earlier conception of how the child develops his concept of an object. However, in the case of scientific conceptions of matter Russell justifies his claims in reference to facts about the history of science and hence his views aren’t refuted by facts about the ontogenesis of the child’s concept of an object. Nonetheless, it should be noted that human’s intuitive understanding of objects, may have influenced early scientific conceptions of physical objects in a way that Russell underestimated.
When discussing how our muscular physics influenced our early scientific conception of matter Russell explicated it in terms of Newton’s concept of force:
“Muscular physics is embodied in the idea of “force,” Newton evidently thought of force as a vera causa, not as a mere term in a mathematical equation. This was natural; we all know the experience of “exerting force,” and are aware that it is connected with setting bodies in motion. By a sort of unconscious animism, the physicist supposed that something analogous occurs whenever one body sets another in motion” (ibid p. 161)
Russell believed that touch-physics influenced early scientific conceptions of atoms engaging in a kind of contact mechanics analogous to billiard balls bashing off each other. One of the difficulties that Russell sees with touch physics is that relies on immediate contact with objects. Whereas sight-physics has been much more important in astronomy (ibid p. 164), as light waves can travel with little change through empty space, hence they put our senses in contact with objects incredibly far away. Russell argues that sight-physics is much more congenial with an event based ontology and that sight-physics is much more important than the other conceptions of matter.
The primary point of Russell’s discussion of the three different conceptions of matter is that our intuitive conception of matter is based on expectations derived from our senses of touch, sight and muscular tensions as we move about our world. Humans are in touch not with the objects we intuitively assume, but rather with sensible qualities which we use to infer common sense objects. Russell notes that the abstract notion of matter that is used in modern physics has little in common with our intuitive conceptions of objects that shaped early modern philosophy and science; nor is it identical with our sensory experiences. Our scientific conception of matter is almost entirely abstract and is very different from our sensory based conception of matter.

Russell’s structural conception of the physical

After outlining how we use our percepts to infer the world of commonsense objects and how these percepts influenced our early scientific understanding of matter; Russell then moved on to discuss matter in contemporary science. On Russell’s picture of the world once we move beyond stimulus to contemporary science , matter becomes entirely abstract and very different from the material objects assumed by common sense. Russell argues we should not think of the basic structure of reality as revealed by physics in terms of stuff or things. When one analyses the actual scientific data to deduce what it ontically commits us to, Russell argues, we discover that the science has no use for the notion of substance. Russell’s considerations of electrons and protons nicely illustrate his view on this topic:
“Are electrons and protons part of the ultimate stuff of the world, or are they groups of events, or causal laws of events? There may be a substance at the centre, but there can be no reason to think so, since the group of events will produce exactly the same percepts; therefore the substance at the centre, if there is one, is irrelevant to science, and belongs to the realm of mere abstract possibility. If we can reach the same conclusion as regards matter in physics, we have diminished the difficulty involved in building our bridge from perception to physics. The substitution of space-time for space and time had made it much more natural than formerly to conceive a piece of matter as a group of events. Physics starts, nowadays, from a four-dimensional manifold of events, not as formerly, from a temporal series of three-dimensional manifolds, connected with each other by the conception of matter in motion. Instead of a permanent piece of matter, we have now the conception of a “world-line,” which is a series of events connected with each other in a certain way. The parts of one light-ray are connected with each other in a manner which enables us to consider them as forming, together, one light-ray as a substance moving with the velocity of light. Just the same kind of connection may be held to constitute the unity of the electron. We have a series of events connected together by causal laws; these may be taken to be the electron, since anything further is a rash inference which is theoretically useless.” (ibid p. 244-245)
In the above quote Russell argues that science has shown that the postulate of matter (in the sense of substance) is superfluous and that we can account for the scientific data in terms of an event based ontology. In the particular case of electrons he notes that thinking of them as things held together by some substance is not warranted by the evidence. While there remains an abstract possibility that such a substance exists; from the point of view of science there is no reason to take this abstract possibility seriously.
Throughout his ‘The Analysis of Matter’ Russell vacillates between arguing that the notion of substance or thing-hood has no place in interpreting physics; and arguing that substance may play a role but we have no scientific way of studying it. Despite at one point arguing that agnosticism is the correct approach to the issue of substance (ibid p. 271), the overall tenor of the book is that once we move beyond our percepts our best theory of the physical world is an insubstantial one.
Russell’s argument is that our knowledge of the physical world is purely structural is based on the fact that we are not directly acquainted with the theoretical constructions used in modern physics. This argument is consistent with both the claim (1) we can only know structural features of reality because of our epistemic limits, but at metaphysical level there is more than structure to fundamental reality, (2) At an ultimate level there is nothing more to reality than the structures science discovers and we only think otherwise because we wrongly assume that reality must conform to our basic perceptual experience. But Russell in his ‘Analysis of Matter’ seemed assume that the second interpretation was the correct one.
In his 1928 paper “Mr Russell’s Causal Theory of Perception” M. H. A. Newman argued that Russell’s structuralist position resulted in a situation where we weren’t making discoveries in physics but were rather engaging in stipulations. In a letter which Russell wrote to Newman, Russell acknowledged the force of the criticism, and it’s devastating impact on his theory. Russell then argued that he had to some degree misspoke in his ‘Analysis of Matter’:
“…I had not really intended to say what I did say, that nothing is known about the physical world except its structure. I had always that there might be co-punctuality between percepts and non-percepts, and even that one could pass by a finite number of steps from one event to another compresent with it, and from one end of the universe to the other. And co-punctuality I regarded as a relation which might exist among percepts and is itself perceptible.” (Quote taken from Demopoulos and Friedman ‘Russell’s ‘The Analysis of Matter: Its Historical Context and Contemporary Interest’ p. 630)
In Russell’s above reply to Newman we can again see the ambivalence at the heart of Russell’s project. Russell never worked out the precise nature of his structuralism and what his structuralism meant for his neutral monism. In my next blog-post I will explore Russell’s neutral monism in relation to his overall views on the nature of mind and matter.

Psychological Influences on Russell’s Philosophical Positions

“Philosophy still has to learn that it is made by human beings and depends to an alarming degree on their psychic constitution. In the critical philosophy of the future there will be a chapter on ‘The Psychopathology of Philosophy’. Hegel is fit to bust with his presumption and vanity. Nietzsche drips with outraged sexuality, and so on. There is no thinking qua thinking, at times it is a pisspot of unconscious devils, just like any other function that lays claim to hegemony. Often what is thought is less important that who thinks it. But this is assiduously overlooked. Neurosis addles the brain of every philosopher because he is at odds with himself. His philosophy is nothing but a systematized struggle with his own uncertainty.” ( C.G. Jung 1943 Quote taken from Scharfstein ‘The Philosophers’ p. 377)

In my last piece I discussed Bertrand Russell’s strange views on mental imagery. How in some places Russell argued that he was an extremely poor mental imager; while his 1919 paper ‘On Propositions’, Russell argued that he knew from direct experience that mental imagery existed; and furthermore, real thinking would be impossible without the use of mental imagery. In a personal communication philosopher David Berman made a couple of comments which may be useful in helping further our understanding of Russell’s strange seemingly and contradictory views on mental imagery.
Berman works in the area of psychological philosophy and has developed a typology that he uses to help him understand the distinctive views held by the great philosophers throughout history. According to Berman there are two main types of philosopher (1) The Conscious type: Berkeley, Descartes, Socrates (2) The Material type: Hobbes, Spinoza, James. Berman also argues that there is a third though less fundamental type (3) The socio-linguistic type; Hegel, Russell, Rorty. He argues that some philosophers are a combination of types with one aspect or type being major and the other minor. Thus you can get philosophers who are a combination of the Consciousness Type and the Socio-linguistic type with the Socio-linguistic type being dominant or vice-versa. On Berman’s typology Bertrand Russell was Socio-linguistic thinker (major) and a material type (minor). I have discussed Berman’s typology in more detail in this blog-post .
In a general sense Berman justifies his typology by studying (1) Strong distinctive mental types living or dead, (2) his interviews with people who have distinctive mental types, eidetic imagers, people with Synesthesia, etc (3) detailed studying and reporting on his own introspective experiences, (4) detailed studies of the great philosophers texts and lives (Berman: Penult p. 5). General justifications aside we will now discuss how Berman deals with the specific case of Russell and how his typology relates to his philosophy.
In his ‘Manual of Experimental Philosophy’ Berman discussed a curious incident in Russell’s mental development. In his ‘Problems of Philosophy’ Russell argued that mental acts are directly observable and patently real. However, a few years later under the influence of James, Russell argued, not only that mental acts didn’t exist, but they were theoretical constructs not something we directly observe. This change of mind is frankly bizarre. It would be one thing if Russell, originally conceived of mental acts as a theoretical construct and later changed his mind, and argued that his philosophical position would be more parsimonious without the theoretical construct. But the fact that Russell originally argued that he could directly observe mental acts and later argued that we don’t observe them calls for an explanation. How could Russell be so sure that he observed mental acts in his earlier philosophy, and then later deny that he observed them?
Russell’s answer was that he was driven by a theoretical need to destroy idealism to postulate mental acts. On Russell’s account when he thought he was observing mental acts he was engaging in a form of wishful thinking. Using his typology Berman argues that Russell’s views on mental acts are evidence of the type of mind that Russell had. A person with vivid conscious experiences (someone like Descartes, Berkeley), would find it difficult to confuse a wish with something they directly introspectively experience because of their transparent access to their own conscious experiences. However, if according to Berman’s typology Russell is a socio-linguistic thinker who is excellent at thinking themselves into of the systems of philosophers; this would offer a compelling explanation of Russell’s strange views on mental acts. As a socio-linguistic thinker Russell’s direct experiences would be less direct than those of a type 1 or a type 2 thinker. Hence, for Russell when he claimed he was observing mental acts; presumably he meant observation in a less fundamental more theory laden manner than type 1 or type 2 thinkers would.
Berman’s typology could be used as a possible explanation of Russell’s strange views on mental imagery that we discussed in our last blog-post: . Again the fact that Russell argues in places that he is a poor mental-imager, and in other places argues that mental-imagery is indispensible for thinking could be evidence of the socio-linguistic nature of his thinking. Russell’s focus is so driven by conceptual concerns that he is unaware of how these conceptual arguments are undermined by his own reports of his experiences. I think that Berman’s typology goes some way towards explaining Russell’s seemingly contradictory views on the nature of mental imagery. However, as I noted in the last blog-post they don’t explain the nature of Russell’s reports of the emotional determinants of when he experiences mental imagery. So while I think that Berman’s typology is a useful partial explanation of Russell’s views I don’t think the typology goes far enough in helping us understand Russell’s claims. While most of the time Russell was the socio-linguistic thinker, that Berman describes, Russell had another side which he only became aware of from time to time. It was this side of him that he attempted to destroy with a cold rationality; he used this rationality try and contain his deep emotional experiences.
We saw above that Berman’s tripartite typology was a useful tool in helping us understand Russell’s philosophical claims about mental acts and mental imagery. Berman also uses another typology to help him understand different views held by the great philosophers. This typology distinguishes between philosophers who are primarily tactile thinkers (TT) or visual thinkers (VT). Berman argues that Russell is a TT and this fact influences Russell’s philosophical views on some subjects.
In his ‘Problems of Philosophy’, Russell famously analysed his experience of a table he was sitting on front of. Berman sensibly argues, that studying the nature of Russell’s description of his experience of the table, is an excellent way of discovering the type of mind Russell had.
In his problems of philosophy Russell had used various different intuition pumps to get his readers to note that they don’t directly perceive material things but rather we are directly acquainted with sense-data which we use to represent the material object. But Russell noted that despite his arguments showing that we don’t directly experience matter, people instinctively think they do experience matter. He locates this instinctive belief in the existence of matter in our sense of sight. Russell argues that as a result of our sense of sight we are led instinctively to believe that matter exists. Interestingly Russell doesn’t argue that our other senses e.g. touch lead us instinctively to believe in matter.
On Berman’s view when Russell claims that we instinctively believe in the existence of matter because of our sense of sight, and not because of our other senses; Russell is actually describing his own unique way of conceiving the world and isn’t picking out a universal trait shared by all humans.
In my previous blog-post I briefly discussed Russell’s claim that Bergson was a strong mental-imager. Russell had argued that both Watson and Bergson were building up their philosophies because of their idiosyncratic psychological capacities. However, Berman has noted that Russell’s views on Bergson’s capacity for Mental-Imagery were actually mistaken. In his Penult Berman cites the testimony of Bergson’s friend H-Wildon Carr:
“Anyone can who has the psychological habit of introspection can test for himself the prevailing character of his imagery and so can know whether he is or is not a visualizer, and if that is so I can settle the question finally so far as Bergson is concerned for I have learnt on his own authority that he is not” (Carr 1912 quote taken from Berman ‘Penult p. 73)
So according to Bergson himself he was a poor at forming mental imagery. So Russell’s conjecture about Bergson is directly contradicted by Bergson’s direct report of his own introspection. Furthermore in his Penult when he analysed Bergson in a similar manner to the way he analysed Russell; Berman claimed that Bergson was a tactile thinker. As Berman noted this discovery is a bit odd; as if Bergson and Russell were the same mental type then it is odd that they disagreed so violently about philosophy. To address this difficulty Berman appealed to his other typology of (1) Conscious Thinker, (2) Material Thinker, (3)Socio-linguistic thinker.
On Berman’s taxonomy both Bergson and Russell are tactile thinkers. However, On Berman’s taxonomy Russell’s major type was the socio-linguistic type. As we saw above the socio-linguistic type has less fundamental experiences and hence relies more on socio-linguistic understanding. Berman argues that because Russell was a Socio-linguistic thinker primarily and only secondarily a tactile thinker he relied more heavily on socio-linguistic knowledge than his own experiences in developing his own theory of the world. According to Berman, Bergson was primarily a tactile thinker, and developed his philosophy based on his direct experiences of reality. Hence, Berman has a justification based on his overall typology of why despite the fact Bergson and Russell were tactile types they ended up holding opposing philosophical views.
However, despite the plausibility of Berman’s claim that Russell was a socio-linguistic type, Berman went overboard in the level of superficiality he accused Russell of engaging as a result of his mental type. At one point in his Penult Berman accused Russell of bowing down to science when trying to do metaphysics. I think that this is grossly unfair. Russell did think that science was our best way of discovering the nature of reality but he never “bowed down” to science. Thus, for example while Russell did make use of behavioural science in his philosophy of language and mind. He was very critical of behavioural science on a number of grounds. Firstly, Russell was critical of Watson’s denial of the existence of mental imagery, Russell argued that it could be shown using the testimony of introspection that Mental Imagery existed. Secondly, Russell argued that basic facts from the science of perception and physics undermined the behaviourist’s claims to be making objective observations. Thirdly, while he thought behavioural science was of some use in epistemology, it didn’t have the conceptual resources to deal with some epistemic problems (such as the problem of the scepticism).
Furthermore, while Russell relied on physics in developing his metaphysical world views he was critical of some physicists interpretations of what science told us. Thus Russell argued that Eddington was badly wrong in claiming that science and religion were compatible. When it comes to the work Russell is most celebrated for his ‘Principles of Mathematics’, ‘Principia Mathematica’ and his ‘On Denoting’, Russell not only wasn’t bowing down to science, he was developing theories that went beyond any science of the time. The evidence from his critical engagement with behavioural science, his disputes with physicists like Eddington, and his own original philosophical contributions, are unambiguous refutations of Berman’s claims that Russell merely bowed down to science when engaging in philosophy.
However, even if Berman does go too far in his characterisation of Russell as bowing down to science when developing his metaphysics; he is surely correct in his assertion that Russell was primarily a socio-linguistic thinker. And Berman’s taxonomy divided into major and minor types does offer a partial explanation of why Bergson and Russell’s philosophies differed despite them both being tactile types.
As we discussed in my last blog-post, contingent facts about Russell’s life that were out of his control; such as the death of his parents when he was a child, and his being brought up by his puritanical grandmother, had a deep influence on his intellectual and emotional development. Such accidents of history and the philosopher’s defensive reactions to these experiences will influence their worked out philosophies as adults. For an example of emotions and their relation to a philosopher’s system see my blog-post on Quine and Emotions: . So while Berman is surely correct in emphasising differences in typology resulting in Bergson and Russell’s different philosophy; he is only telling half the story by neglecting contingent facts of life that may have played an even bigger role in the differences between their philosophies.
There have been some attempts to interpret philosophical systems in light of contingent facts about the life of a philosopher; thus in his ‘The Philosophers: Their Lives and the nature of their Thought’ Scharfstein discussed atomism as a philosophical doctrine. He noted that in ancient times the debate between atomists such as Democritus and their opponents were done at a time when we had a very poor scientific understanding of the nature of the world. Given the limited evidential basis informing the ancient discussions of the validity of atomism Scharfstein speculated that a major component in the position philosophers took in these debates was their concrete experience of reality .
Scharfstein didn’t just discuss atomism in relation to pre-scientific speculation about the nature of the physical world. He also discussed a peculiar form of atomism that has been prevalent amongst philosophers discussing their selves, their perceptions and the nature of their thought. In this case he also thought that discussions of the nature of the philosopher’s psychology would reveal why they were drawn to atomism:
“Therefore, when I think of the atomism of Hume, James, Russell, and Wittgenstein, I conclude that it must have been their inward experiences that made them receptive to the atomic disintegration of the self” (Scharfstein: ‘The Philosophers’ p. 77).
Scharfstein argued that the psychology underlying the atomism was informed by a deep depression suffered from all of these atomistic philosophers:
“Hume, James, Russell, and Wittgenstein were all undermined by suffering…underwent deep depressions, and all were tempted by suicide-Hume on only one occasion however. All four of these adopted approximately Buddhist solutions to the pains of life… Mach…was isolated, lonely and sensitive…like James, Russell, Hume, and Wittgenstein he adopted a near Buddhist solution.” (ibid p. 78)
Scharfstein’s analysis is interesting but he provides virtually no evidence to support his position. Obviously, undergoing great depressive periods isn’t sufficient to make one an atomist in the above sense. If it were then psychiatric wards would be full of people espousing atomistic philosophies. Furthermore, plenty of philosophers have suffered periods of depression and haven’t become atomistic philosophers; Schopenhauer is a notable example. Nonetheless despite the fact that Scharfstein’s analysis isn’t overly convincing it does remind us that contingent accidents life can play a role in the philosophy that a person adopts or creates. Bergson, and Russell may have both been tactile thinkers but they lived very different lives and had different aptitudes that may have lead them to adopting their different overall philosophies.
In my next blog-post I will flesh out Bergson and Russell’s philosophies and how it related to their lived experiences. I will then try to disambiguate the degree to which their typologies influenced their philosophical systems; and compare the influence of typology with the influence of accidents of their biography on their respective philosophies.

Bertrand Russell: Unconscious Terrors; Murder, Rage and Mental Imagery.

In his 1919 paper ‘On Propositions: What they are and how they mean’ Bertrand Russell attempted to solve a problem which had bothered him since 1903 but to which he could not find a solution. The problem which concerned Russell was called the problem of the unity of the proposition. Russell made various different attempts to solve this problem culminating in his 1913 ‘Theory of Judgement’ which was severely criticised by Wittgenstein and led to Russell abandoning his theory of judgement. Since his ‘Principles of Mathematics’ Russell had difficulties in accounting for the unity of the proposition. His technique of logical analysis involved him analysing propositions down to their basic atomic components. However, the problem was that once he did this he found it difficult to reconstruct the propositions in a way that had sense. If we take the proposition ‘The dog is bigger than the cat’, in the proposition one has two different nouns and a two place predicate. The problem is that if we treat the two place predicate ‘is bigger than’ and nouns ‘The dog’ and ‘The Cat’ as separate atoms, then we are left with the difficulty of how these atoms can be related to each other in a sensible manner. If we take the two nouns as separate atoms and the relational predicate as another atom; then the question becomes as to how the atoms are related together. If we say the relational predicate is related to the atoms by another relation we will go on an infinite regress of relations relating relations. But if we say that the relation intrinsically relates the two atoms we are pointing towards a mystery as opposed to solving it. Russell eventually decided that the atoms are related by a process of judgment by a subject. But he had intractable difficulties in explicating the nature of the subject or the nature of the atoms the subject was supposedly organising.
Around 1919, while in prison, Russell came to believe that solving the difficulty (which relates to symbolism) would of necessity involve psychological data. So Russell turned his attention to psychology. His primary area of interest was the behaviourism of J.B. Watson, however while Russell was impressed with Behavioural science, he found one major difficulty with it. Watson’s behaviourism involved denied that mental imagery existed and explained away mental imagery interms of muscular movements. Russell strongly disagreed with this approach:
“When Professor Watson says: “I should throw out imagery altogether and attempt to show that practically all natural thought goes on in terms of sensori-motor processes in the larynx (but not in terms of imageless thought”, he is it seems to me, mistaking a personal peculiarity for a universal human characteristic.” (Bertrand Russell ‘On Propositions’ p. 293)
Above Russell is criticising Watson for engaging in the typical mind fallacy when theorising about mental imagery. On Russell’s hypothesis; Watson has an inability to call up mental imagery and confusedly mistakes his inability as a universal trait shared by all humans. This inference of Watson’s is obviously an invalid one; and Russell cites the work of Francis Galton who demonstrated empirically that most humans were able to create mental imagery (though the degree to which they could do so varied).
Russell also noted that Galton’s study of mental imagery demonstrated that people’s ability to form mental images decreased as they got older. Russell speculated that perhaps Watson had lost the ability to form mental imagery through hard abstract work in behavioural science. This conjecture of Russell’s has been verified in a close scholarly study of Watson’s evolving views on mental imagery; ‘The First Modern Battle for Consciousness: J B Watson’s Rejection of Mental Imagery’ by Berman and Lyons. Through a close textual analysis of Watson’s writing throughout his career they demonstrated that early in his career Watson admitted to experiencing mental imagery while later in his career he claimed an inability to form mental imagery. Berman and Lyons argue convincingly that Watson’s change of mind resulted from him losing the ability to form mental imagery later in life. So Russell’s conjecture about Watson’s capacity to form mental imagery does seem to have been on the mark. Likewise Russell was surely correct to charge Watson with engaging with the typical mind fallacy.
Russell argued convincingly that the existence of mental imagery was a clear refutation of the type of behaviourism that Watson was endorsing. However, Russell made further uses of mental imagery in trying to solve the unity of the proposition which resulted in Russell having to incoherently attack his own ability to form judgements. When discussing the meaning of words Russell made the following point:
“So far we have found four ways of understanding words:
(1) On suitable occasions you use the word properly.
(2) When you hear it, you act appropriately.
(3) You associate the word with another word (say in a different language) which has the appropriate effect on behaviour.
(4) When the word is first being learned, you associate it with an object. The word ‘motor!’ can make you leap aside, just as motor can, but it cannot break your bones. ( Russell ‘On Propositions’ p. 301)

Russell’s account of the nature of words is thus far pretty comprehensive; and as he notes holds no difficulties for the behaviourist. But Russell argues that such usage of words is limited to what he calls demonstrative language; picking out and discussing objects in the immediate environment. Another important use of language is narrative use of language which involves telling someone about some remembered event. On Russell’s account a narrative use of language typically involves the formation of mental images in the speaker discussing the remembered event, and the formation of mental images in the mind of the person who listens to and understands what the speaker is saying. Russell notes:
“It is clear that, in so far as the child is genuinely remembering, he has a picture of the past occurrence, and the words are chosen so as to describe the picture; and in so far as the hearer is genuinely apprehending what is said, the hearer is acquiring a picture more or less like that of the child… it is nevertheless the possibility of a memory image in the child and an imagination image in the hearer that makes the essence of the ‘meaning’ of the words. In so far as this is absent, the words are mere counters, capable of meaning, but not at the moment possessing it. We may say that while, words used demonstratively describe and are intended to cause sensations, the same words used in narrative describe and are intended to cause images.” (Russell ‘On Propositions’ p. 302)

Based on the above line of reasoning Russell concludes that there are two other main ways that words can mean as well as the four mentioned above. (5) Words can be used to describe or recall a memory image, (6) Words can be used to describe or recall an imagination image. Russell notes that 5 and 6 are the essence of the meaning of words.
Russell uses such mental imagery in attempting to solve the problem of the unity of the proposition:
“I have a complex image, which we may analyse, for our purposes, into (a) the image of the window, (b) the image of the fire, (c) the relation that (a) is to the left of (b). The objective consists of the window and the fire with the very same relation between them. In such a case, the objective of a proposition consists of the meanings of its constituent images related (or not related, as the case may be) by the same relation as that which holds between the constituent images in the proposition. When the objective is that the same relation holds, the proposition is true; when the objective is that the same relation does not hold, the proposition is false.” (Russell ‘On Propositions’ pp. 316-318)

Russell’s attempted solution to the problem of the unity of the proposition involves the postulation of mental imagery. Likewise he argues that mental imagery is the essence of the meaning of words in most cases. This position raises a number of difficulties for Russell. As we saw above Russell argued that Watson didn’t have the ability to form mental imagery. But if we assume with Russell that Watson didn’t have the capacity to form mental imagery then this raises questions with Russell’s theory of meaning. Watson is perfectly capable of reasoning verbally about things in the past and things in the future. Russell respected Watson enough to ask him to read and comment on his ‘Analysis of Mind’. In practice Russell acted as though Watson was a thinker who was capable of meaning things by his words. Yet on Russell’s theory; he should have judged Watson’s speech which didn’t involve mental imagery as follows:
“it is nevertheless the possibility of a memory image in the child and an imagination image in the hearer that makes the essence of the ‘meaning’ of the words. In so far as this is absent, the words are mere counters, capable of meaning, but not at the moment possessing it.” (ibid p. 302)

If Russell was true to his word he should have judged a non-imager like Watson’s speech as a meaningless counter. That Russell didn’t adopt this extreme approach in interpreting the verbal utterances of Watson is evidence that Russell didn’t fully endorse his theory in practice.
But things get much worse for Russell’s theory when consider how he uses it to deal with the problem of the unity of the proposition. On Russell’s view our mental imagery of a state of affairs is true when the imagery is isomorphic with the state of affairs it depicts and false when it isn’t. Russell thinks this isomorphism between our mental images and the reality it depicts solves the unity of the proposition problem. But we saw earlier that Russell argued that Watson was incapable of forming mental imagery. Based on this fact Russell would have to conclude that Watson was incapable of judging statements such as ‘the cat is on the mat’. This is a fantastical result.
However things get even more fantastical when we consider what Russell said about his own mental imagery. In his ‘Philosophy of Logical Atomism’ written the year before his paper on Propositions Russell made the following claim:
“That, of course, is especially likely in very abstract studies such as philosophical logic, because the subject-matter that you are supposed to be thinking of is so exceedingly difficult and elusive that any person who has ever tried to think about it knows you do not think about it except perhaps once in six months for half a minute. The rest of the time you think about the symbols, because they are tangible, but the thing you are supposed to be thinking about is fearfully difficult and one does not often manage to think about it. The really good philosopher does once in six months think about it for a minute. Bad philosophers never do.” (Bertrand Russell ‘The Philosophy of Logical Atomism’ p. 185)
Above Russell argues that the philosopher (including Russell) when thinking about abstract matters in logic can rarely get to the thing itself and instead has to think purely in symbols. Yet in his ‘On Propositions’ written less than a year later Russell argues that when a person is thinking in symbols they are using counters, capable of meaning but without imagery devoid of meaning. This would mean that Russell only thinks meaningfully only once every six months for a half a minute.
Of course a defender of Russell could argue that he is in the above quote talking about one of the most difficult subjects known to man and that when it comes to more prosaic subjects he can think in images for a much longer period. But even this defence of Russell doesn’t fit with the facts we know about his intellectual capacities.
In his masterful biography of Russell Ray Monk noted that Russell read Williams James’s Principles of Psychology and found James’s account of people having different capacities to form Mental Imagery fascinating. In a section where James discussed Galton’s breakfast table test; James noted:
An exceptionally intelligent friend informs me that he can frame no image whatever of the appearance of his breakfast-table…the ‘mind-stuff of which this ‘knowing’ is made seems to be verbal images exclusively.
In the margins where Russell wrote about the above example, he noted ‘this is almost my own case’ (ibid p. 86). Furthermore when Russell was psychologically tested by Crawshay-Williams, the results indicated that Russell was primarily a verbal thinker.
It is both fascinating and strange that Russell who by his own acknowledgement (and according to a psychologist who tested him), was a poor Visual Imager; would construct a theory of judgement that meant he was virtually incapable of forming any judgements. The examples, Russell gave of using imagery that were isomorphic to mind independent facts seem to be the very facts he would be incapable of forming. So, for example, if he were incapable of forming an image of his breakfast table he couldn’t judge whether the salt was to the right of his cup of tea. He could use verbal reasoning to make this judgement but according to Russell this type of judgment wouldn’t be an example of real thinking.
The question which now needs to be asked is why would Russell sketch a theory of thinking that implied that he could rarely think? Russell’s reliance on imagery becomes even more strange when one thinks on the philosopher who Russell spent a lot of his time criticising; Henry Bergson. After meeting and talking with Bergson; Russell made the following comment:
“I didn’t find out anything except, even more strongly, what one gathers from his books, that he is a very vivid visualiser, but has little auditory or tactile imagination-his whole philosophy is dominated by a sense of sight” (ibid p. 239)
It is surprising to find that Russell’s theory in ‘On Propositions’ results in a state of affairs where Russell is arguing that Bergson, (who he strongly disagrees with) is capable of meaning; whereas Russell most of the time is just using counters and not thinking.
It is difficult to understand what could lead Russell to advocate a view made meaning so parasitic on something Russell claimed to be incapable of. Could Russell really think that he wasn’t meaning anything when he spoke?
Strangely enough; there is a sense in which Russell did take his public utterances to be somewhat meaningless. Russell’s childhood was tragic. At the age of two his mother and sister died. His father died a year later. Russell was then brought up by his grandparents. After his grandfather died and his brother was sent off to boarding school Russell was brought up at home by his puritanical grandmother. Russell learned early to form polite chat at home with his grandmother and to keep his real thoughts and feelings to himself. Later on in life when he was informed about psychosis being a major factor in his family he came to associate these thoughts and feelings with fears of going insane.
Nonetheless, despite outward appearances Russell had a rich fantasy life and felt resentful at his grandmother and his life in general. Throughout his life he would swing between finding people he believed could penetrate to the true him; artists like Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence or his lover Lady Ottoline, to disenchantment when relations strained with these muses. When this happened Russell would throw himself into his mathematical logic and regressed to the way of acting he maintained with his grandmother:
“Everything vital and important to him was kept hidden behind a polite, stiff and priggish exterior” (Monk ‘Russell p. 158)
“And, just as he had then, so he now tried desperately ‘to avoid all deep emotion’ and to live once more on the surface” (ibid p.305)
But what is the nature of this self, he believed, these artists grasped about him? When discussing his bond with Conrad; Russell noted:
“It had to do with our shared ‘Satanic Mysticism’, the truth of which he had never been convinced about, but ‘in moments of intense emotion it overwhelms me.’ It consists in thinking there are two levels: ‘one of science and common sense, and another, terrifying, subterranean and periodic, which in some sense held more truth than the everyday view.” (ibid p. 317)
So for Russell at some level; the subterranean depths were more real than the level of science and common sense. But what did these subterranean depths consist of? A further discussion of Russell’s capacity for mental imagery is revealing.
Despite what we discussed above; Russell could form some mental imagery. While living abroad and away from his girlfriend he commented in a letter that:
“I have lost the power of visualising thee, which I only keep a few days of parting” (ibid p. 87)
So when it came to someone he was emotionally and sexually attached to he could form mental images. Furthermore, and more disturbingly, when noting his violent tendencies he also noted that these violent thoughts gave him burning hot imagery:
“I remember when I wanted to commit murder, the beginning was a sudden picture (I hardly have pictures at ordinary times) of a certain way of doing it, quite vivid, with the act visible before my eyes. It lived with me then for ever so long, always haunting me; I took to reading about murders and thinking about them, and always with that picture before me. It was only hard thinking that kept me straight at the time- the impulse was not amenable to morals, but it was amenable to reasoning that this was madness.” (ibid p. 256)
So with someone he cared deeply about he could form some mental imagery even if he couldn’t maintain the imagery for long without contact with that person. His imagery improved as we saw when he was highly emotional; for example in the disturbing example of his fantasies of murder. However, he didn’t always need to be strongly aroused by love or hate to form mental images:
“Bates bores me while I am reading him, but leaves pictures in my mind which I am glad of afterwards.” (ibid p.529)
But in again his forming images is related to reading fiction. For Russell, mental imagery is restricted to lovers, hated people he thinks violent thoughts about, and to the realm of fiction. In other words, for Russell mental images are primarily the realm of fantasy. Yet in his paper in propositions he thinks that the essence of thinking is in images. He goes as far as to say that true thinking cannot occur without such images.
It is a reasonable conjecture that Russell growing up in Victorian society with a puritanical grandmother taking care of him, resulted in him hiding all his passions and bad thoughts from public consumption; even from himself at times. But at an unconscious level he always thought that this hidden self was his real self (as opposed to a just another aspect of his evolving personality). Russell was terrified that at his core he had inherited insanity from his family. His sometimes violent fantasies became associated with this madness and these fantasies, typically accompanied by imagery, became associated with what he unconsciously believed was the truth. His public philosophy which he constructed without mental imagery became unconsciously associated with a meaningless facade.
It is my contention that Russell’s ‘On Propositions’ was an unconscious confession that his public philosophy was a meaningless facade, and that his true nature was the self revealed in his intense imagery of lovers, enemies, fiction and madness itself.

What is Truth? Part 1: Correspondence.


When trying to elucidate is the nature of truth; it is best to start with our intuitive conception of the concept, and see whether it stands up to critical scrutiny. Most people uncontaminated by philosophy would cash out truth as in terms of correspondence. The correspondence they would try to elucidate would be between either a thought or a statement and a state of affairs in the world. On this picture something is true if and only if the statement/thought corresponds with a state of affairs in the world.


            When trying to elucidate this correspondence theory of truth it is important to do so in reference to a series of examples. Some examples seem to perfectly fit the correspondence theory of truth, while other examples are more problematic. A nice clear example which seems to fit the correspondence theory of truth is the statement (1) Grass is Green. Statement (1) is true if grass is green and false if it is not. The true statement results from a correspondence between a fact and the state of affairs in the world that the statement represents. On the face of it (1) is a perfect example of a correspondence between a statement and a state of affairs in the world; hence it is a nice illustration of a particular instance of the correspondence theory of truth that we can use to see if it generalises to all supposed true statements.


            Obviously, however, before we proceed to test whether we can generalize from example (1) to other examples of true statements we need to first analyse the nature of the purported correspondence occurring with example (1). Now if we are arguing that the statement corresponds with a state of affairs in the world we are committed to the view that words in the sentence correspond to objects or properties in the world and that the structural features of the sentence are isomorphic with the structural features of the world.


            If we begin with first with structural features of our statement (1) Grass is green. On the face of it (1) involves picking out an object (grass) and predicating to the object the property of greenness. If the statement is true the then the object picked out by the statement (grass), will in fact be green hence the statement will correspond with a state of affairs in the world. Other structural variants of the sentence would be nonsensical as they wouldn’t pick out any sensible structural features of the world. Thus take (2) Is grass green. There are various different ways of interpreting (2) the most obvious one being that by moving ‘is’ to the front of the sentence (2) unlike (1) is no longer a statement but a question. On this plausible interpretation; a simple structural change to the sentence stops it from being a statement. Another possible structural change is illustrated by (3) Green is grass. Now (3) from a structural point of view is a statement. However, on the face of it, the statement seems to be senseless. There are various different ways of parsing the statement one could read it as treating ‘Green’ as an object and predicating ‘grassness’ as a property of the ‘green’. But the preceding interpretation seems barely intelligible. There are other ways of treating (3) a more plausible way of interpreting it would involve pragmatic features that would mean that green is understood in terms of a particular paradigm; ‘grass’. However, while a theory of linguistic usage of this form could be sketched it would involve considerations that would go well beyond any simple sketch of the truth of the statement being simply a correspondence with non-linguistic facts.


            So it could be argued that (1) is the only structural combination of the three words ‘grass’, ‘is’, and ‘green’ that makes sense as a statement; and this is because the structural features of (1) directly mirror the structural features of the world. So in the simple example of (1) we need to posit a kind of structural isomorphism between the sentence and the state of affairs in the world it picks out.


            This account of a mirroring relation between sentences and the states of affairs in the world they pick out works well for a variety of different sentences. A sentence such as (5) The cat is on the mat. Is a perfect exemplar of a statement having structural features in common with states of affairs in the world. The examples I have given are extremely simple ones, and obviously any attempt to generalize the structural isomorphism between syntax and structural features of reality in true sentences will raise a lot of technical difficulties when discussing more complex syntactic structures. However, for now, let us stick with our simple example (1) and discuss it in relation to relation to the semantic features of the sentence; what sense we can make of explicating the truth of the sentence in terms of correspondence.


            As I said above (1) would be a clear example of a true sentence for a person uncontaminated by philosophy. It is a reasonable conjecture that most people would think that (1) is true because it corresponds with a particular state of affairs in the world. Of course a moment of reflection will show that things are not as simple as they seem. Firstly, statement (1) ‘Grass is green.’ is a general statement, so its truth value cannot be cashed out by a single state of affairs. In (1) the word ‘Grass’ isn’t being used to pick out a particular blade of grass. Nor is ‘Grass’ being used to pick out a particular patch of grass. In (1) ‘Grass’ is being used to pick out a particular category of things in the world that we use the label ‘Grass’ to describe. When it comes to ‘Green’ it isn’t referring to a particular green thing in the world; rather it is describing a property which different things in the world have or don’t have. The word ‘is’ should be treated as a relational predicate that links the property with the object in the sentence.


            With the above little bit of complexity acknowledged we can no longer simply assert that (1) is true because it corresponds with a particular state of affairs in the world. If we consider ‘Grass’ as a general term that picks out a type of entity in the world, and not a particular entity, then our analysis becomes more complex. When we are speaking of what a word refers to we run the risk of presenting a misleading picture of what reference entails. As has long been noted in the philosophical literature (see Strawson 1971), words don’t refer; rather words are used by people to refer to things. So when we are discussing a reference relation between a word and an object in the world we need to keep in mind the context the word is used in.


            In trying to understand the reference of the word grass ‘Grass’, we will obviously need to have a theory as to the nature of reference. When thinking about reference it is best to begin with concrete acts of reference in a shared world of experience; and building up a theory of how we refer to abstract entities such as numbers, sets, etc. after we have accounted for simpler forms of reference.


            Reference is typically a social skill and involves communication between at least two parties about a shared world of experience[1]. Reference is possible without linguistic communication. A non-linguistic example of reference is pointing. The ability to interpret pointing is a human universal[2], but it is not shared by most other animals. Non-human primates, don’t use pointing as a tool to refer to the non-human world. In fact few animals are proficient at interpreting pointing. An exception to the rule that most non-human animals have trouble interpreting pointing; is domestic dogs. Wolves who domestic dogs evolved from cannot typically interpret pointing; but domestic dogs have somehow evolved the skill. Domestic dogs were primarily selected for by humans for their social abilities. It is probably no coincidence that domestic dogs who were selected for empathy with the humans they live with, have developed the capacity to interpret human gaze direction and pointing. However, an analysis of the evolution of domestic dog’s capacity to interpret gaze direction and pointing is beyond the scope of this paper.


            Normally developing humans have the capacity to interpret the eye gaze of their fellow humans as directed towards objects in their shared environment, and to interpret our fellow humans pointing as referring to objects in our shared environments. In order to interpret eye gaze or pointing as indicating an object in a shared world of experience a creature needs what anthropologist Tomasello calls shared intentionality. At a minimum the humans need to view each other as agents with a point of view about the world and as agents who may want to communicate useful information about the world to another agent.


            Animals who have the capacity for shared intentionality and the capacity to interpret eye gaze, and pointing; have the rudiments of reference in place. They can refer to objects in the mind independent world and can judge whether the person they are communicating is interpreting the reference correctly or not. So we can now see that with triangulation on a shared object of experience, comes the capacity for reference, and for correct or incorrect interpretations (Davidson 2001). Furthermore, the ability to use words, though more complex than bare pointing, still relies heavily on the foundation of shared intentionality and pointing. 


            So with two primitive humans who are interacting with each other in a particular environment; if one human points to grass in the environment, the other human can judge, either correctly or incorrectly, that that is what his partner was referring to. Of course without the linguistic abilities these creatures will remain at a primitive stage of communication and they won’t have the capacity to make statements about the aspect of reality they are referring to.


            In the philosophy of language there is a debate in the theory of meaning that is divided into two main camps: the descriptive theory of meaning (Frege, Russell, the Later Wittgenstein), and the direct reference theory of meaning (Kripke, Putnam). Roughly speaking the descriptive theory of meaning argues that our words manage to refer by picking out an object in the world via a description (or a cluster of descriptions). While the direct reference theorist argues that we pick out objects directly and our words keep their meaning by tracking the same object throughout time.


            The debate between descriptive theorists and direct reference theorists is at an impasse and at the moment amounts to nothing more than an appeal to competing intuitions. However there has been some excellent work in perceptual psychology and philosophy (see Fodor and Pylyshyn 2013) has provided a good perceptual grounding for direct reference theorists[3]. In this piece I am going to work within a direct reference theory of meaning and causal theory of meaning. Though given that the debate between descriptive theories of meaning and direct reference theorists hasn’t been decided any conclusions I make will be vulnerable to the outcome of this debate on the theory of meaning. Such is life.


            So in our (very) conjectural story truth enters the scene with triangulation on shared objects of experience between agents communicating with each other and judging whether the other has interpreted the others pointing correctly or not[4]. Our similar perceptual apparatus, and similar embodied nature, as well as our emphatic understanding of each other[5] makes this triangulation mostly successful.


            In going from triangulation using pointing and eye gaze to the use of words and the combining of these words with syntax we move into deep waters. In studies of the evolution of language there is lots of data and competing theories but no theory which stands out as the obviously correct one. Tomasello argues that language evolved from gestures and that spoken words came later. Everett argues that speech and gesture evolved together. While Chomsky almost entirely ignores gesture and traces the origins of language to a mutation which gave us syntactic structure. The dates of when language evolved are again radically different depending on the theorist; Everett places the evolution of language at about 1.5 million years ago, Tomasello argues that it evolved 200,000 years ago, while Chomsky argues that language evolved 50,000 years ago because of a random mutation.


            Obviously any discussion of how language evolved cannot be undertaken in this paper, as to discuss the issue in the detail, would require at least a book length treatment. And as our topic here is on the nature of truth and not the evolution of language we need to keep our focus on the salient issues and avoid getting bogged down into a morass of irrelevant detail.


            For our purposes we need only note that the next step that our primitive human must make beyond pointing; is to be able to pick out an object, and say something about it. This would involve our primitive man developing subject predicate structure. So for simplicity sake let us pretend that our primitive man is speaking proto-English. He can point to objects, can name the objects and say things about them. At this point our primitive man will have the capacity to say ‘Grass is green’ and the members of his tribe will be able to judge whether what he has said was correct or incorrect.


            Based on our causal theory of meaning we will assume that grass was originally picked out because of its bare perceptual features and given a name which was passed on to other members of the community. In this sense grass will have an extension that is recognised by most members of the community; based on the perceptual features of the environment. Presumably one of the key perceptual features of grass as-well as its shape will be its colour. So it will be partly built into the concept of grass that it is green. So most people who understand the concept of grass will agree that it is green; it will be part of the concept of grass that it is green.


            However, despite the fact that greenness will be one of the perceptual features used to pick out grass, it would be a mistake to assume that the greenness of grass is a conceptual truth. It is an obvious fact of experience that grass isn’t always green. During hot weather grass can turn brown and yellow. The greenness of grass may be a typical perceptual feature of grass but something can be grass and not be green.


            So when the general statement (1) “Grass is green” is asserted; the response won’t be true of false but rather a sensible person will reply that it is typically green though not always. The preceding response won’t rely on a simple correspondence between a statement and a state of affairs but will rather involve an averaging many perceptual experiences.


            Above we were speaking about a person who was answering the question based on their own casual experiences interacting with the world on a daily basis. However it is important to note that we have more precise ways of classifying the world and the entities it contains; than casual induction. Scientific analyses often categorise things in more precise ways than our ordinary perceptual judgements do. So, for example, while people may classify Whales as Fish, or the Moon as a Planet, scientific analysis divided up the world in a more precise manner using an intricate network of theory. Hillary Putnam calls this the division of linguistic labour where we use our concepts based on loose perceptual features but rely on scientific analysis to give the extensions of our concepts in a more finely grained manner. However, when it comes to a scientific analysis of something like grass, simple correspondence between statement and fact becomes less plausible. A scientific theory is a interconnected network of theoretical and empirical facts which are used to predict and control the data of experience. A scientific analysis of something like grass will not involve a simple statement that corresponds with non-linguistic facts; rather it will be a network of statements that are connected to experience only at the periphery (Quine 1951).


            We saw above that our ordinary language interpretation of (1) “Grass is green”, doesn’t yield to an unproblematic correspondence between statement and fact. Neither do we get an unproblematic correspondence between statement and fact when we resort to a scientific interpretation of (1). However it could be argued that (1) would yield to an unproblematic correspondence if we add the demonstrative ‘this’ to (1) to yield (6) This grass is green.


            The use of the demonstrative ‘this’ in (6) seems to give us a simple correspondence between statement and mind independent fact. We no longer have to worry about yellow grass and we can simply assert correctly that the grass in front of us is green. However, even here we run into some problems when we try to cash out the statement in terms of correspondence with mind independent fact. As it is unclear that green is in fact a property that exists in the mind independent world.


            As every school child knows, the standard scientific theory of colours are that they are a secondary quality that are created as a result of light reflecting off objects and hitting our retinas, resulting in information being translated along our neurons until the hit the occipital lobe in our brains, which results (nobody knows how) in our conscious experience of colour. So it is unclear whether we can cash out the greenness of grass in terms of simple correspondence with mind independent facts[6]. So even with the simple sentences like “This grass is green” cannot be explicated in terms of simple correspondence between statement and fact.


            It could be argued that I am by focusing on a secondary quality like colour I am making things too hard for those who are pushing for a correspondence theory of truth. However, this interpretation is incorrect. As Berkeley showed three hundred years ago even primary qualities don’t yield unproblematic access to a mind independent world.


            In this piece I tried to begin with a simple statement and explicate it in terms of a correspondence theory of truth. My plan was to begin with a simple statement demonstrate the correspondence there before moving on to more complex statements. However, I discovered that even with the simple statements an analysis in terms of correspondence proved impossible. There no generalisation from simple statements to more complex statements was possible. In the next blog-post I will discuss the coherence theory of truth and see if it fares any better as a theory than the correspondence theory did.


[1] See Davidson ‘What Thought Requires’ 

[2] By a human universal I mean that the skill of interpreting pointing is shared by all normal humans; some humans with autism or various different types of intellectual disabilities have trouble interpreting pointing.

[3] Though there are some dissenting voices see Churchland 2013 and Burge 2007.

[4] This picture was first argued for by the philosopher Donald Davidson…Though Davidson was pretty sketchy on the nature of the cognitive architecture responsible for this capacity. Michael Tomasello, more than any other, theorist has helped us fill in the empirical details missing from Davidson’s logical reconstructions.

[5] For a discussion of empathy see Quine 1990.

[6] Some philosophers and scientists reject the division of the world into primary and secondary qualities, for example Daniel Dennett, and some direct realists about colour. However their position is a minority one and as far as I am aware no direct realist has any account for how the mind manages to remain in direct contact with the mind independent world.


Edward Witten, New Mysterianism, and Physics Worship

“Incurable optimist that I am, I find this recent invasion by physicists into the domains of cognitive neuroscience to be a cloud with a silver lining: for the first time in my professional life, an interloping discipline beats out philosophy for the prize of combining arrogance with ignorance about the field being invaded. Neuroscientists and psychologists who used to stare glassy-eyed and uncomprehending at philosophers arguing about the fine points of supervenience and intensionality-with –an-s now have to contend in a similar spirit with the arcane of quantum entanganglement and Bose-Einstein condensates. It is tempting to suppose that as it has become harder and harder to make progress in physics, some physicists have sought greener pastures where they can speculate with even less fear of experimental recalcitrance of clear contradiction.” (Dennett ‘Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Objections to a Science of Consciousness’ p. 10)
In this blog-post I will evaluate physicist Edward Witten’s claim that consciousness will remain a permanent mystery that science will never reduce to basic physics. In the first half of the blog-post I will evaluate Witten’s argument (such as it is), and criticise his view as lacking in sufficient justification. I will discuss why people seem so impressed by Witten’s claim despite the lack of evidence presented by him. In the second half of the blog-post I will attempt to present a philosophical justification for why Witten may hold the views on the mind that he does and show that a possible argument for his position is constructible but that Witten hasn’t presented this argument himself.
Part 1: An evaluation of Witten’s “argument” for the non-reducibility of consciousness to physics.
A little over two years ago Edward Witten declared in an interview that consciousness would more than likely forever remain a mystery which science couldn’t explain. Witten’s entire argument went as follows: Future Science will make great progress in giving functional explanations of how the brain is implemented in causing consciousness. However, it is unlikely that future science will ever get a handle in explaining why consciousness has the form that it does. Witten says he finds it inconceivable that future science will ever explain the hard problem of consciousness. He went on to speculate that he believed that science is more likely to explain the nature of big bang than it is to solve the hard-problem of consciousness.
On the face of it Witten hasn’t said anything particularly controversial. Most theorists working on consciousness are aware of the so-called hard problem of consciousness and there are various competing approaches to deal with the problem. What is surprising though is that people found Witten’s speculations particularly interesting. Given that Witten didn’t provide a single piece of evidence to support his claim, but simply asserted that he personally didn’t think there would be any progress in a field he doesn’t work in, one would imagine that his speculations would have evinced a shrug of the shoulders. But no his speculations made news. Scientific American writer John Horgan wrote a piece about how the most brilliant physicist the world has seen since Einstein has come out as a mysterian about consciousness. Horgan noted that Witten was adopting a position similar to philosopher of mind Colin McGinn and linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky. There was an air of triumph in Horgan’s article he seemed delighted to have a famous scientist on board with the mysterian position. Why Horgan was so happy is unclear. Witten didn’t present a brilliant argument to support his position, nor did he present any empirical data to support his position. All Witten did in the short interview was assert that he personally found it difficult to conceive of a solution to the hard problem of consciousness. Yet some people take this bland assertion by Witten as a vindication of the fact that consciousness will permanently remain a mystery to science.
Since there seems to be no logical reason why one would be impressed with Witten making an assertion, for which he provided no evidence, one is left to speculate why Horgan and others were so excited about Witten’s claim. One obvious reason why a person would be so impressed by Witten’s non-argument is that he is a physicist. Physics is our most basic science, and theoretically we would like to reduce all other claims to the basic facts of physics. When an expert in physics claims that such a reduction is impossible one should take notice. Such an expert in physics will know more about the fundamental facts that govern our cosmos than philosophers like Daniel Dennett or Patricia Churchland will know. So perhaps an expert like Witten given his superior knowledge of physics; should be taken seriously, when he makes claims about the reduction of something to basic physics. Perhaps. Though given that Witten didn’t present a single piece of evidence to support his position; I would argue scepticism would be a more appropriate response, rather than the howls of delight that greeted Witten’s assertion.
At the very least if we are to argue that Witten’s claim has any validity he should be interviewed to try to understand precisely how he proposes to support his claim. Furthermore when discussing the reduction of x to y; it should be acknowledged that while Witten is legitimately considered an expert on x, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Witten knows anything about y. In other words, while everyone agrees that Witten is an expert on physics he has never demonstrated any competence or understanding of the various sciences related to the mind; neuroscience, cognitive science, behavioural science, anthropology, philosophy of mind, phenomenology etc. This should be a worry for the people who want to treat Witten as the ultimate authority on the nature of the mind and its relation to physics. I would imagine that those who aren’t worried will fall into two camps (1) Those who have documented evidence on Witten’s expertise on the nature of the mind and consciousness, (2) Methodological Dualists who think that while we need to rely on the standard methods of science to understand all other aspects of the physical world, but that when it comes to humans above the neck casual reflection is sufficient achieve understanding .
I doubt that anyone will present evidence of Witten’s years of engagement with the sciences of the mind; though I would love if they did, I suspect the reason Witten worshipers don’t think he needs any training on the mind is because they are implicit methodological dualists. It strains credulity, given the stunning amount we have learned in the sciences of the mind over the last hundred and fifty years, that anyone could hold such an absurd anti-scientific world view. Nonetheless, a substantial amount of philosophers and physicists believe that when it comes to human consciousness, casual reflection on the contents of experience is sufficient to justify wide ranging metaphysical conclusions.
Science and Introspection: A Brief Interlude
As stated above it is unclear whether Witten has any knowledge of the relevant sciences of the mind; or whether he is just using his intuitive understanding of the consciousness to demonstrate that it cannot be reduced to physics. If Witten, or his followers are merely relying on casual introspection to support their claims, caution is warranted; scientific experimentation has demonstrated that consciousness may not be all that it pre-theoretically seems to be.
In Nick Chater’s 2018 book ‘The Mind is Flat’, he argues that current experimental data demonstrates that our mind doesn’t have the structure that casual introspective inspection implies. There is a certain sense in which Chater’s book reads like an updated version of Dennett’s 1991 ‘Consciousness Explained’. In fact Chater begins his book with a quote from Dennett’s ‘Consciousness Explained’:
“When we claim to be just using our powers of inner observation, we are always actually engaging in a sort of impromptu theorizing-and we are remarkable gullible theorizers, precisely because there is so little to ‘observe’ and so much to pontificate about without fear of contradiction” (Dennett ‘Consciousness Explained p. 68)
Chater argues in a similar manner to Dennett. He thinks that our so called introspective observation is a kind of impromptu theorising. Chater even uses the same example as Dennett to illustrate his point. It seems upon casual inspection that our entire visual field is in colour. An experiment which anyone can do is to place a playing card on front of you and to then move it to the periphery of one’s visual field. A typical person who is asked would guess that the card will be seen in colour whether it is at the centre or at the periphery of one’s visual field. However, as anyone who has done the experiment would attest when the card is at the periphery of one’s visual field it actually appears to be black and white. The result of this simple test, Dennett and Chater argue, shows that sometimes our supposed direct introspective experiences are actually just implicit theories we are using.
Chater presents a list of experimental data to show that introspection isn’t as reliable as we may uncritically assume:
(1) Impossible Objects: These are objects created by the Swedish artist Oscar Reutervard. These works of art give the appearance of being three dimensional objects. However when we analyse the objects we discover that the objects would be impossible to build as three dimensional. Chater draws three conclusions from these impossible objects (A) We aren’t inspecting some inner object that the mind has constructed as a mirror of reality, the mind is better thought of as an inference machine than as mirror of reality (B) We aren’t inspecting these impossible objects as a coherent whole, rather the mind is inspecting different parts of the object at different times in a piecemeal way. (C) Our misplaced confidence in introspection. We assume we are inspecting an actual three dimensional object, but we are in fact doing no such thing.
(2) Our assumption is that our visual field is uniform that we see colour at the periphery of our visual field. However, it is well known experimentally that our peripheral vision is both blind and blurry (‘The Mind is Flat’ p. 42). So again what we think we are experiencing through casual introspection, is now revealed to be false through detailed experimental studies. As Chater notes when discussing simple illusions: “Our visual experience can depend, rather dramatically, on where we are looking-and we are certainly unable to ‘load up’ this entire image into our minds- even though it is actually very simple and repetitive.” (ibid p. 43).
(3) Our intuition that we can see words all over the page when we read it is also an illusion. Chater discussed experimental data which uses ‘eye gaze tracking devices’ to demonstrate that in computer screen tests which consist of mostly blanked out words, interspersed with windows of words, if the computer maps the windows of texts to the eye gaze movements the person will not be aware that the screen consists of mostly blanked out words. Chater draws the following conclusion from the study: “The results suggest that the eye and the brain picks up little outside a very narrow ‘window’. Indeed, we can go a bit further the evidence suggests that we can only read one word at a time…Looking at a crowd, it turns out that you can only recognize one person at a time; looking at a colourful scene, you can only report colours or details of things that you are looking at directly. This does not imply, of course, that you pick up no information at all about objects you are not attending to- just that this information is extremely sparse. (ibid p. 46)
Other pieces of evidence which can be used to demonstrated that our consciousness experience isn’t as detailed as we like to think is the phenomenon of change-blindness. Change-blindness has been studied many different times experimentally. In his 2005 book ‘Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Objections to a Science of Consciousness’ discussed the phenomenon of change-blindness and the difficulties that it raises for defenders of qualia.
In his classes Dennett often used a demonstration from an experimental study by Rensink et al ‘To See or Not to See: The Need for Attention to Perceive Changes in Scenes’ (1997), as a way of tapping his students intuitions about the notion of qualia. In the demonstration two almost identical photographs are shown for almost 250 milliseconds each, separated by a 290 millisecond mask. This is repeated in alternation till the subject notices a difference between picture A and picture B. It usually takes between 20 and 30 seconds till people notice the differences between the pictures ( ‘Sweet Dreams’ p. 82).
When Dennett presents this test to his students, after they have finished it and indicated that they noticed the changes between the pictures, he asks them a question:
“Now before you noticed the panel changing colour, were your colour qualia for that region changing? We know that the cones in your retinas in the regions where the light from the panel fell were responding differently every quarter of a second, and we can be sure that these differences in transducer output were creating differences farther up the pathways of colour vision in your cortex. But were your qualia changing back and forth- white/brown/white brown-in time with the colour changes on the screen? Since one of the defining properties of qualia is their subjectivity, their “first-person accessibility,” presumably nobody knows – or could know- the answer to this question better than you. So what is your answer? Were the qualia changing or not? (ibid p. 83)
Dennett’s question is an important one to ask. It is sometimes assumed that we have direct access to our subjective experiences, that we know them in an intimate way that isn’t accessible to third person science. In the philosophical literature, these direct experiences are known as; qualia. But as Dennett notes the phenomenon of change blindness casts serious doubts on whether we understand qualia as directly as we think we do.
There are three possible answers to Dennett’s above question. (1) Yes my colour qualia were changing even though I wasn’t aware of that fact. (2) No my colour qualia wasn’t changing despite the changes occurring in my brain as I viewed the images (3) I don’t know (various reasons I don’t know could be): (A) I now am aware that I never really understood the concept of qualia all along, (B) I do understand the concept of qualia but I have no first person access to my qualia in this case, and third person science cannot get access to this qualia either.
Obviously any of the above answers will cause serious difficulties for the concept of qualia. The experiment shows that we don’t just have unproblematic access to our subjective states. None of the experimental data discussed by Dennett or Chater will be news to students of consciousness. Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists etc have debated the significance of these experimental data and what they demonstrate about the nature of consciousness for years. I don’t bring up this data because I think it is conclusive against introspection as a tool; in fact I don’t think the experiments do rule out careful introspection as a tool. I bring up this data because there is no evidence whatsoever that Witten claims about the nature of consciousness and its relation to physics deal with any of this experimental work in the science of the mind.
Consciousness seems to be unique to those who are interested in understanding how the mind works. No serious student of language argues that by virtue of being a language using creature we can casually reflect on the nature of language and make pronouncements on syntactic structure. Imagine the response if some physicist, who the popular press labelled the new Newton, pronounced that he believed by casual reflection on his own language using abilities that, it is more likely that we would understand the big bang than that we would ever reduce syntactic structure to basic physics.
I am certain that any responsible linguist, would adduce a series of facts that have been discovered re-the empirical research into syntax. She would then ask whether the physicist demonstrated any understanding of the relevant facts; whether the physicist’s intuitive understanding of syntax matched the precise models that have been created by scientific investigation. With this done it would then be a matter of demonstrating to the physicist that her conception of syntax wasn’t sufficiently precise enough to understand the nature of the subject matter, scientific research was needed, not casual reflection on one’s own experience as a native speaker of English . However, if the physicist was open minded and wanted to learn what science has told us about the nature of syntax, the physicist could become a productive collaborator on the project.
However, in the case of Witten and consciousness things are more difficult to ascertain, as we don’t know why he thinks that consciousness cannot be reduced to physics. All we have to go on are Witten’s bland assertions, and the howls of delight by mysterians to have an authority of a physicist on their team. Until Witten, or his supporters, manage to flesh out his views on consciousness, and whether they are sensitive to the relevant scientific facts it is very difficult to judge the truth value of his claims.
It is ironic that mysterians feel so desperately insecure about their philosophical stance that they feel the need to appeal to the authority of people like Witten, because the mysterian position is a perfectly sensible one. Rather than engaging in appeals to authority, I would suggest that a more sensible approach to adopt would be to simply outline your own reason for thinking that mysterianism is more likely to be true than its competitors.

Part 2: A Proposed Explication of why Witten is a Mysterian
There are various different difficulties with trying to explicate consciousness interms of underlying brain states. Over the last fifty or so years as we have learned more and more about behavioural distinctions between different types of consciousness, and have developed good psychological models to explain various different types of conscious and unconscious states it has become much more tractable to study the neural correlates of consciousness.
However, it has been noted by a number of theorists, that none of these studies demonstrate why the particular conscious states have the qualitative feel that they do. There are a number of different ways of explicating this intuition which are now pretty standard. It is worth though briefly mentioning through famous intuition pumps which are designed to make the difficulties of reducing consciousness experience to the physical more salient.
(1) What is it like to be a bat?
The philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous 1974 paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, was a thought experiment which was designed to illustrate the illusive nature of subjective experience from a third person perspective. Nagel noted that a scientist who is studying the bat, has a variety of different avenues available to him in his study. The scientist can study the bat from the point of view of behavioural tests, naturalistic observations, neuroscientific studies etc. However, Nagel argued that the Bat has a subjective world of his own which will be missing from any third person study done by the scientist. The Bat as he flies about will have a world of experience which will have a specific quality that will forever elude any understanding from the point of view of third person science.
Nagel believes that by reflecting on the subjective world of the bat it should be obvious that it’s direct first person experience is not the kind of thing which we could understand by appeal to third person science. In his ‘Consciousness Explained’ Dennett noted that Nagel’s choice of a Bat as his example was inspired. A bat as a mammal is enough like us to make us confident that it is conscious creature. If Nagel had chosen a fly or an earthworm as his exemplar a lot of people would have been less confident that there was any reason to believe that the creature in question was conscious. While if Nagel had chose a fellow primate who is much closer to us biologically a lot of people wouldn’t have been as confident in Nagel’s intuition that we couldn’t understand its mental states using third person science.
Nagel’s thought experiment has influenced a lot of scientists and philosophers that our subjective states and their precise nature are something that we cannot understand using third person science. And his thought experiment does have some initial plausibility. It does seem plausible to assume that Bat’s have subjective states which can only be truly understood through direct experience, and that third person science doesn’t tell us about these states or about how they are realised.
This of course leads us to the question of whether when Witten is arguing that the mind will never be explained interms of physics; he is pumping a similar intuition to Thomas Nagel? Witten does seem to be alluding to the so called Hard-Problem of consciousness when he asserts his mysterian position. Like Nagel, Witten argues that, while science will eventually give us a good functional understanding of the workings of the neural correlates of consciousness; but the actual subjective states we have; and why they have the quality they have, is something that won’t be accounted for by third person science.
In terms of the conclusions they adopt Nagel and Witten seem to be reading from the same page. Whether they reached their conclusions via similar arguments is a different question. Nagel’s thought experiment involved reflections on the conscious experience of a Bat, and his argument is meant to go through for all conscious creatures. Witten never mentioned whether he was referring to the consciousness of all mammals, or just human consciousness, whether he thought all animals or even insects were conscious. Whether there were different kinds of consciousness, and if so whether all of these different types of conscious states were equally un-amenable to scientific reduction. When Witten argues that consciousness isn’t suitable for scientific reduction it isn’t clear what the extension of consciousness is for him, or whether he is appealing to the type of intuitions that moved Nagel.
(2) The Problem of Mary:
While the relation of the intuitions that Nagel was pumping to the intuitions that Witten is pumping are difficult to demarcate; another intuition pump may be closer to the concerns that move Witten. I am thinking of Frank Jackson’s famous thought experiment about Mary a colour blind neuroscientist who in the thought experiment knows all the scientific facts that there are to know about the physics and psychology of colour vision. One day Mary has her colour vision fixed and she begins to perceive colour for the first time. The question then asked is whether Mary will learn anything new about colour vision when she first sees the colour red.
The conclusion typically drawn is that despite knowing all of the physical facts about colour vision, Mary would indeed learn something new when she first saw red. She would learn what red is like from the first person point of view. The intuition being pumped here is that no amount of third person science would be sufficient to generate direct first person experience.
A typical objection to the Mary thought experiment is that we have absolutely no idea of what it would be like to know ALL the scientific facts about colour vision. Given the obvious fact that we truly do not have any conception of what it would mean to know all the facts about colour vision; any extrapolations we make about what Mary would learn are entirely baseless.
A defender of Witten could argue that given that he is one of the more knowledgeable physicists alive today; his intuitions about having all physical knowledge of X would be more robust than your average philosopher. So we should take his intuitions about the Mary case more seriously than the intuitions of the average philosopher. Such a critic would have a point. However, once we acknowledge two points Witten’s intuitions on Mary seem just as un reliable as anyone else’s intuitions. (1) Witten may know a lot about physics but this doesn’t really give him much insight into what it would be like to know everything about the physics (unless we add the implausible premise that Witten is close to a complete theory of everything), (2) While Witten may know a lot about physics, there is no evidence he knows anything whatsoever about perceptual psychology. So there is really no compelling reason to think that Witten is any more capable of understanding how someone with ALL knowledge of colour vision would react upon receiving their sight than anyone else.
Again though it is unclear given the lack of detail in Witten’s argument for mysterianism whether his intuitions on the topic are derived from the intuitions pumped by Nagel or Jackson. The only theorist Witten does mention in his interview was the mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose. Penrose in his 1989 ‘Shadows of the Mind’ famously argued that the mind cannot be a computational device. He noted that Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem proved the incompleteness of mathematics by showing that in any mathematical proof we will be intuitively able to recognise certain truths that cannot be formally proven within the system. If someone argued that the brain was a computational device then they wouldn’t be able to explain how we grasp certain truths which cannot be computationally explicated. Therefore, Penrose argued, since the computational theory of mind is our best working model of the brain, and it can be proven mathematically to be incomplete, we must draw the conclusion that we don’t have a physical explanation of our mental capacities.
Again with Penrose’s argument we have no idea whether it is guiding Witten’s intuitions. All Witten did say re- Penrose was that he didn’t think that Penrose’s supposed solution to the problem would work.
At this stage even though we cannot say for sure what intuitions Witten was relying on re the non-reducibility of consciousness to physics, we at have at least briefly discussed a few problems with reductionism which may have influenced Witten. We will now proceed to discuss how these difficulties may have led to Witten being a mysterian about consciousness.
(3) Mysterianism as a Philosophical position:
A philosopher who is arguing that there are problems with reducing psychological predicates to physical predicates doesn’t automatically have to become a mysterian. As we briefly discussed above Roger Penrose thinks that understanding consciousness in terms of basic physics is at present not tractable. But he argues that if we make suitable modifications to our understanding of basic physics then this may solve the problem. So Penrose, despite having difficulties with current attempts to reduce the mind to the brain, doesn’t adopt a materialist approach to the mind body problem.
Furthermore, other scientists who don’t think that the mind can be reduced to physics aren’t directly led to a mysterian solution. There are various different approaches adopted by scientists and philosophers on this topic. There is the neutral monism of Ernst Mach, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, and William James. There is Eliminative Materialism held by the Churchland’s (who are eliminativists about propositional attitudes but not consciousness), Keith Frankish seems to be an eliminativist about consciousness and to a degree Dan Dennett is too (Dennett is not an eliminativist about propositional attitudes but seems to be about consciousness). Anomalous Monism argued for by Donald Davidson. Panpsychism has defenders in people like Galen Strawson, and David Chalmers amongst others. There many other competing views; epiphenomenalism, property dualism, substance dualism etc.
I do not here have space to evaluate these various competing positions in understanding the relation of the mind to the body. I just bring them up to demonstrate that many, philosophers and scientists see great difficulties in reducing the mind to the body; however they are not led by these difficulties to a mysterian position. So even if Witten did accept some of the difficulties put forth by Nagel, Jackson, and Penrose with reducing the mental to the physical; it should be noted that mysterianism doesn’t automatically follow from these difficulties.
Mysterianism typically starts out with the commonsense position that humans being animals will have limits to the things they can understand. Chomsky described the position as follows:
“As for the matter of cognitive reach, if humans are part of the natural world, not supernatural beings, then human intelligence has it scope and limits, determined by initial design. We can thus anticipate that certain questions will not fall within their cognitive reach, just as rats are unable to run mazes with numerical properties, lacking the appropriate concepts. Such questions, we might call ‘mysteries-for-humans’, just as some questions pose ‘mysteries-for-rats’. Among these mysteries may be questions we raise, and others we do not know how to formulate properly or at all.” (Chomsky ‘New Horizons in the study of Language and Mind’ p.107)

This position is perfectly sensible; as a human animal whose brain can only operate within certain fixed parameters it is perfectly sensible to suggest that there may be some problems which our brain is incapable of solving. Chomsky has suggested that ‘consciousness’ and ‘Freewill’ may fall with the realm of mysteries for those with human type intelligence.
Chomsky though is careful to note that he is only suggesting that ‘consciousness’ may be a permanent mystery to human intelligence. He isn’t claiming to have proof that consciousness falls within the mystery category. It is one thing to argue that humans being animals with a fixed cognitive structure may have cognitive limitations which makes some questions unanswerable for us. It is another thing to draw an actual line which demonstrates precisely where this line falls and to place certain subject matters on one side or the other of the problems/mysteries divide.
Colin McGinn argued that we have good reason to think that consciousness falls within the mystery category. As we saw above we have many different competing candidates for dealing with consciousness and at present we don’t have any way of deciding between these positions. McGinn thinks that the reason we cannot decide between these various positions, is because consciousness is beyond our capacity to understand. He argues that while we have made great progress in the last 2000 years in understanding cognitive structures in the brain, neural correlates of consciousness, etc we have made very little progress in understanding the hard problem of consciousness. He thinks that the best explanation of this difficulty in solving the hard problem of consciousness is that it is a mystery for creatures of our cognitive structures.
Personally I don’t agree with McGinn’s position that the hard problem of consciousness is a mystery. I don’t think that the disputes between the various different competing camps is as tractable as Mcginn thinks. Nonetheless I think that Chomsky is certainly correct in raising the possibility that consciousness may be a permanent mystery to humans.
As I said at the outset it is difficult to know why Witten is pessimistic about the possibility of reducing psychology to physics as he doesn’t present an argument. I have thus far sketched a possible justification for Witten. (1) People like Nagel, Jackson, and Penrose have presented good arguments that indicate that it may not be possible to explain subjective states in terms of third person science. (2) Chomsky has shown that humans being animals may have cognitive limitations which may mean that certain subjects will remain permanent mysteries for them, (3) Given the seemingly intractable situation with competing theories of how to reduce the mind to the body it is plausible that consciousness falls within the realm of mysteries.
Whether Witten is actually arguing in this manner is difficult to know as he is so sketchy of his reasoning on the topic. Anyway my reconstruction of Witten’s possible reasoning processes is the only sensible justification I can give of his vague comments.

Bertrand Russell, Little Albert and Murderous Rage

“This principle, as the reader will remember, states that, if a certain event calls out a certain response, and if another event is experienced just before it, or at the same moment, in time that other event will tend to call out the response which, originally, only the first event would call out. This applies to both muscles and to glands; it is because it applies to glands that words are capable of causing emotions. Moreover, we cannot set limits to the length of the chain of associations that may be established. If you hold an infant’s limbs, you call out a rage reaction; this appears to be an ‘unlearned reaction’. If, you and no one else, repeatedly hold an infant’s limbs, the mere sight of you will call out a rage reaction after a time. When the infant learns to talk your name may have the same effect. If, later, he learns you are an optician, he may come to hate all opticians; this may lead him to hate Spinoza because he made spectacles, and thence he may come to hate metaphysicians and Jews. For doing so he will no doubt have the most admirable reasons, which will seem to him to be his real ones; he will never suspect the process of conditioning by which he arrived at his enthusiasm for the Ku Klux Klan.” (Bertrand Russell ‘An Outline of Philosophy’ pp. 88-89)
In the above incredible passage Russell presents a toy example of how through a process of classical conditioning a child as he grows up into an adult could end up developing an irrational hatred of a particular group. On this picture a child would begin with an instinctive anger about being having his limbs held. Only one person is guilty of holding the child’s limbs, and that person is a visiting scientist. Through classical conditioning the child eventually comes to associate the scientist with being held. The mere sight of the scientist is enough to get the child to feel rage. In this respect the child is like Pavlov’s dog who salivates every time he hears a bell ring. Russell’s extrapolations are thus far consistent with known scientific data . Russell’s example is similar to the studies done by both Pavlov and Watson in classical conditioning. In Pavlov’s famous experiment the dog has an unconditioned reaction to food being presented (he salivates), and through conditioning; a bell being rung just before the food is presented, the dog salivates at the sight of the bell. The dog salivating to the bell is called a conditioned response. Russell’s toy example is similar in that the rage is an unconditioned response to being held and the conditioned response is the rage elicited at the sight of the scientist. Russell’s toy example stands up to critical scrutiny so far. Though to be more complete in his analysis, he should have discussed the fact that such conditioning processes wouldn’t necessarily continue on indefinitely, once the scientist had discontinued with the practice of holding the child’s limbs. Russell’s analysis implies that this classical conditioning will necessarily continue on to adulthood resulting in poorly understood rage. However in Pavlov’s original experiments it was noted that after a period of time where the unconditioned stimulus (the food) is presented without the conditioned stimulus (the bell), the dog ceases to salivate at the sight of the bell. Russell though is just uncritically assuming that the conditioned stimulus will continue throughout the child’s life.
The evidence for extinction occurring in classical conditioning is overwhelming. There have hundreds of studies done on extinction in behavioural science in the years since Russell wrote his ‘An Outline of Philosophy’. Russell cannot be held to account for not predicting the results of experiments which were not yet performed. Nonetheless, he is guilty of uncritically assuming that the effects of the conditioning will continue throughout the child’s life. This assumption was unjustified; even Pavlov writing years before Russell had noted the effects of extinction on conditioning.
A possible reason for Russell assuming that the effects of the conditioning would remain throughout the child’s life, were the existence of phobias. Some people spend their entire lives afraid of certain creatures because of experiences in their childhood. Russell greatly admired the work of J.B. Watson and discussed his work in ‘An Outline of Philosophy’ in great detail. Watson’s experiment with Little Albert was viewed at the time as a way of inducing a phobia in the child using classical conditioning. The child Little Albert is introduced to a white rat which he plays with for a while. Watson then makes a loud noise every time the child went to touch the rat. After a while the child is presented with the white rat and immediately becomes upset at the sight of the white rat despite no loud noise being made. It is then shown that the child generalises his fear of the rat to other furry creatures such as dogs, teddy bears etc. Russell may have extrapolated from the demonstrative fact that some people have irrational phobias in adulthood, and Watson inducing a phobia in a child through classical conditioning to the conclusion that adult phobias are the result of unintended classical conditioning of children in childhood. Such a conclusion obviously doesn’t follow from facts Watson presented. There wasn’t any evidence that Watson’s classical conditioning would last into adulthood.
If Russell had asserted that it was possible that adult phobias were the result of classical conditioning then his assertion would have been a reasonable hypothesis worth trying to test. However, Russell instead just assumed that classical conditioning in childhood would last into adulthood. It is possible that Psychoanalysis, which when Russell was writing his ‘Outline of Philosophy’ was world famous, implicitly influenced Russell’s thinking. Freud claimed to have demonstrated that childhood trauma can unconsciously influence adult behaviour and thought processes. Freud had justified his claim with his clinical work with patients who he claimed he cured by bringing their unconscious traumas to consciousness. Freud even argued that a lot of our explanations of our behaviour could be shown to be merely rationalizations that do not correspond with the real causes of our behaviour. As we saw above Russell made a similar point to Freud about the adult giving a rationalization to explain his racist views.
Given the esteem that Freud’s views on the importance of childhood experiences in determining adult behaviour, was held in when Russell wrote his ‘An Outline of Philosophy’, it is highly probable that Russell was influenced by Freud’s views. This would make sense of Russell’s uncritical assumption that classical conditioning of rage to a particular person would last into childhood. Russell may have reasoned as follows: (1) We know from Freud’s clinical work that trauma from childhood can last into adulthood, (2) Watson induced a phobia into Little Albert using classical conditioning, (3) Given Freud’s discoveries it is reasonable to assume that the classical conditioning used by Watson could last into adulthood, (4) Watson’s experiments are an excellent tool to explain adults with irrational phobias, this is indirect evidence that the conditioning lasts into adulthood. Obviously, if this was Russell’s reasoning process then it was non-demonstrative. Nonetheless it could be considered a reasonable inference to the best explanation. Russell’s imagined reasoning process would have been reasonable at the time. But since then the amply demonstrated notion of extinction in classical conditioning and the many methodological flaws with Freud’s psychoanalysis casts serious doubt as to whether the classical conditioning Russell is appealing to would actually continue to affect the adult’s behaviour. On the other hand, the existence of spontaneous recovery of conditioned responses after they have undergone extinction could be used as a point in Russell’s favour.
For the sake of argument we will assume that Russell’s view that the classical conditioning will continue to affect the child into adulthood is correct. And move on to the next step in the above passage by Russell. He goes on to note that this form of conditioning can be extended indefinitely. Thus when the child learns to associate a name (e.g. ‘J.B Watson’) with the person who held him, the name will then elicit the same feeling of rage. Russell’s extrapolation that the name will have the same effect as the person does is again probably based on Watson’s experiment with Little Albert.
In Watson’s experiment he purported to have shown that Little Albert generalized his fear of rats to other furry animals. Russell seemed to be thinking about Albert’s purported generalization to other furry animals as a reason to assume that the child in his above example will follow a similar process. Thus the child will unconsciously move from feeling rage at the adult being present, to feeling rage when he speaks or hears the adult’s name. Russell speculates that if the child learns that the scientist who abused him was also an optician; he could hate all opticians. This could lead to him hating Spinoza who was an optician and because Spinoza was a metaphysician and a Jew, the child could generalize to a hatred of all Jews and Metaphysicians.
The process that Russell is invoking is commonly referred to as ‘stimulus generalization’ and has been well studied and shown to have effects in both classical conditioning and operant conditioning. While people have made some legitimate methodological criticisms (and ethical criticisms) of Watson’s Little Albert Experiment, there have been hundreds of better constructed experiments verifying the effect in the last ninety years. So to a degree one could argue that Russell’s toy example invoking generalization is corroborated to some degree by experimental data.
Russell’s image is of a child as a result of classical conditioning and stimulus generalization developing strange aversions which as an adult are rationalized; while the real cause is something much different. One of the problems with this emphasis is that one is at a loss to explicate precisely what features will be generalized, and why. In Watson’s Little Albert experiment the child generalized to ‘small furry things’, while in Russell’s toy example the child over a period of years generalized from the person, to the name, to a description of the person An Optician, to all Opticians, to contingent features of particular opticians.
There seems to be no reason why a person would generalize in a particular way as opposed to another way. On Russell’s view the child is implicitly using the propositional function ‘x makes me angry’ and ‘x is the scientist’. However the when the child learns that the scientist is an optician he makes the further illicit inference: x makes me angry, x is an optician therefore opticians make me angry. But there are countless different facts about the scientist that are discoverable by child. The experimentalist is a scientist, he is an optician, he is a man, he could be short, fat, thin, hunchbacked or could have any other number of features. There seems to be no reason that the child would unconsciously generalize in one way or another on Russell’s account. So while Russell’s hypothesis has some good scientific data underlying it, he hasn’t presented a model that can predict in detail they way a person will generalize unconsciously. Nonetheless he has presented a useful explanatory model that can be used to explain people holding odd beliefs that they give unconvincing reasons for why they hold them.
Interestingly the principle of generalization was proposed by psychoanalyst Matte Blanco as one of the key features of unconscious thinking. Blanco used Russell and Whitehead’s Principia-Mathematica to formalise Freud’s theory of the unconscious. One difficulty with Blanco’s work is that he didn’t have a compelling causal account of the principle of generalization and his approach at times had a Cartesian disembodied feel. Watson’s work on classical conditioning and stimulus generalization would have been a useful tool to help give a naturalistic account of the purported structure of the unconscious mind.
It is interesting to note that Russell read a paper by Blanco where the principle of generalization is discussed in detail. Russell sent Blanco a note to say that he admired Blanco’s work. It is tantalizing to speculate whether Russell put together his own use of stimulus generalization expressed in his ‘An Outline of Philosophy’ with Blanco’s similar principle. Unfortunately there isn’t a record of Russell’s thoughts on Blanco’s ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’.
As noted above there are plenty of criticisms of the methodology used by psychoanalysts. So people may not be overly impressed that some aspects of psychoanalysis seem to be in agreement with Russell’s hypothesis. It is worth noting though that Relation Frame Theory and its clinical off shoot Acceptance and Commitment Therapy also makes use of implicit generalizations to explain the behaviour of people with various kinds of behavioural problems.
Neither Blanco’s work or work in Relation Frame Theory are yet predictive of what type of generalizations a person will generate in a given instance. They are rather retrospective theories that can be used to explain the verbal behaviour of the patients that they deal with. Nonetheless I think it is fair to say that at present Russell’s speculation while not proven correct; is given what contemporary data tell us, a reasonable hypothesis.