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The Sublime and The Uncanny: Jurassic World and the Walking Dead


In his famous paper on the Uncanny Freud complained that philosophers studying aesthetics had contented themselves with studying positive aesthetic experiences such as the beautiful, the pleasant etc. Freud even used the sublime as an example of a positive emotion that philosophers had studied. To redress this perceived imbalance Freud wanted to study a largely negative human aesthetic experience; the experience of the uncanny.

Freud’s treatment of the uncanny was excellent; but anyone who has read philosophers like Kant will be taken aback by Freud’s claims about the sublime. The concept of the sublime; far from being a purely positive emotional experience actually involves many negative emotions.

In his ‘A Critique of the Power of Judgement’ Kant constructed a theory of the sublime which influenced a generation of artists and philosophers. In next section I will briefly describe Kant’s conception of the sublime and exemplify a key example of it using a clip from the film Jurassic World.  In the following section I will then outline Freud’s concept of the Uncanny and illustrate its nature in reference to the popular television programme The Walking Dead.  Finally I will demonstrate that these concepts have more in common than Freud realised.

The Sublime

According to Kant the sublime is an aesthetic experience where people have an emotional reaction to a terrifying representation of an aspect of nature. Kant differentiates the sublime from other concepts such as the beautiful, the good, and the pleasant. He argues that the sublime differs from the pleasant because the experience of something as pleasant relies on a sensation whereas an experience of the sublime doesn’t. He further argues that the sublime differs from the good because judging something as good requires it being interpreted through definite concepts, whereas, while judging something as sublime also requires interpreting them through concepts; the concepts we use when we judge something as sublime are indeterminate concepts (‘A Critique of Judgement p. 61). Furthermore Kant argues that when we judge something as beautiful we do so because of the particular form of the object we are judging; whereas when we judge something as sublime this is because we view the object/scene to be formless, boundless etc (ibid p. 61)

Kant doesn’t just describe the sublime by differentiating it from other concepts (the beautiful/the good/the pleasant). He also presents positive characteristics of the nature of the sublime. Kant argues that there is a particular psychological state associated with it. When we judge something as sublime we are both repelled by it and attracted to it at the same time. Our relationship to objects we judge to be sublime is one of respect and awe.

Another key feature of the sublime involves judging the objects of experience as purposeless and dangerous. Thus despite something being viewed as chaotic, dangerous and purposeless this only increases our sense of it as being sublime. Kant makes an important point re the sublime; we shouldn’t say that the object itself is sublime; rather particular forms of judgement excite in us feelings which lead us to judge the object as sublime. There is a sense in which the self is irreducibly involved in judging something to be sublime. When describing the sublime he makes the following point:

“Nature excites the ideas of the sublime in its chaos or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation, provided size and might are perceived.” (ibid p. 63)

Despite spending a lot of time distinguishing between the idea of beauty and the idea of the sublime Kant notes that they can be studied using similar methodologies. When judging something as sublime we must attempt to view it from a disinterested perspective, and we must hold our judgements as universally valid judgments about the sublime feeling they inspire (ibid p. 63). Kant makes an important distinction between two types of sublimity:  (1) the mathematical sublime, and (2) the dynamical sublime.

The Mathematical Sublime

The mathematical sublime involves judging objects quantitatively according to their size. Some objects appear to be big, powerful and dangerous. But any judgement of something as large will be done relative to a perspective; when judged from another perspective an object that once seemed large can come to seem small. Thus, though Kant when he discusses the sublime restricts himself to objects of nature and doesn’t deal with animals; an example from the animal kingdom is nicely illustrative. The lion has a reputation as a powerful predator. Next to a pig or a domestic cat it looks like a giant monster. But in the film Jurassic World there is a scene where the lion comes face to face with a T Rex and the Lion suddenly loses a bit of its grandeur: . And of course the T Rex is tiny in comparison to a Megalodon or a Whale, and these creatures pale in significance to the ocean, the ocean is insignificant in comparison to the Sun and so on. Kant notes that as great as these objects are, there are other objects which dwarf them; and this infinite hierarchy of objects we are capable of conceiving are dwarfed by the mind which is doing the conceiving. We have two main modes representing these sublime objects (1) via number using algebra or (2) using intuition (measurement by the eye) aesthetical judgments (ibid p. 65). Now when it comes to using numbers we can keep increasing magnitude to infinity; but when it comes to aesthetical judgments our perceptual capacities will limit what we can experience. Furthermore while an increase in magnitude through number is experienced in a neutral manner; our aesthetical appreciation of magnitude is experienced in an emotional manner.

When discussing the nature of our perceptual grasp of objects and how this influences the aesthetical judgments we make about these objects Kant gives an example of viewing a Pyramid. In order to get a peak experience of viewing the Pyramids we must keep from going too near to them, thereby negating our judgement of their size in relation to their environment, and keep from going too far away from the Pyramids and diminishing our appreciation of their size and the details of its construction.

Kant uses some clear examples of what he considers paradigms that will lead to one experiencing the sublime:

“Who would call sublime, e.g. shapeless mountain masses piled in wild disorder upon each other with their pyramids of ice, or the gloomy raging sea?…A tree, (the height of) which we estimate with reference to the height of a man, at all events gives a standard for a mountain; and if this were a mile high, it would serve as a unit for the number expressive of the earth’s diameter (would supply a unit) for the known planetary system; this again for the Milky Way; and the immeasurable number of Milky Way systems called nebulae- which presumably constitute a system of the same kind among themselves-lets expect no bounds here. Now the sublime in the aesthetical judging of the immeasurable whole like this lies not so much in the greatness of the number (of units), as in the fact that in our progress we ever arrive at greater units. To this the systematic division of the universe contributes, which represents every magnitude in nature as small in its turn; and represents our imagination with its entire freedom from bounds, and with its nature, as a mere noting in comparison with the ideas of reason, if it is sought to furnish a presentation which shall be adequate to them.” (Kant ‘A Critique of Judgement’ p. 71)

His examples, illustrate the entire Kantian gambit of ideas about the sublime. You get objects being big relative to humans; being dwarfed by larger objects, being further dwarfed by larger objects etc and finally you get the encompassing reason which is able to appreciate and dwarf all of these objects of nature.

The dynamically sublime

In Kant’s view nature when it is judged aesthetically as dwarfing us and potentially overwhelming us but as having no dominion over us is an example of the dynamically sublime. In order for us to experience nature as sublime we need to recognise its awesome power and size while controlling our emotions. If we were to be overwhelmed by fear in the sight of say something like crashing waves nearby us we would not be able to experience it as sublime. We need to be able to dispassionately judge the object of our experience as something with incredible power, but as something which has no dominion over us in order to be able to judge it as sublime. Kant gives some dramatic examples of the sublime:

 “Bold, overhanging, as it were threatening, rocks, clouds piled up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river and such like; these exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly small in comparison with their might. But the sight of them is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we are in security; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.” (ibid p. 75)

Again when considering these examples of the sublime in nature Kant notes that incredible as these objects of nature are our minds ability to encompass them and represent them is greater still (ibid p. 75).

Above I used an example from the film Jurassic World to illustrate a point about comparative might (a Lion vs a T Rex), when I used that example I noted that Kant would not have approved. As we can see from the many Kantian examples I quoted ad-nauseum he was concerned with nature; mountain tops, the Ocean etc and not with members of the animal kingdom. He gives his reason as follows:

“Our examples are not to be taken from the beautiful or sublime objects of nature as presuppose the concept of a purpose” (ibid p. 82)

When Kant speaks about purpose; he is talking about living creatures, in particular, animals. There is a perfectly sensible way of understanding Kant’s distinction. Thus from a commonsense point of view uncontaminated by philosophy, we can speak of the purposes of animals. Thus the Lions purpose when stalking his prey is trying to catch it, kill it, and eat it, with as little danger (to the Lion as possible). But the ocean wild tossed and turned by the wind isn’t intuitively viewed as an agent with a purpose; and vast mountain ranges filled with snow which could fall upon us at any minute isn’t easily viewed as an agent. We will abstract the degree to which these animals are merely manifesting competence without comprehension, and the question of whether animistic societies which existed thousands of years ago would agree with Kant that the ocean wasn’t an agent. What is more interesting is that Kant is aware of how these concepts mix up and thinks that experience of the sublime is only possible when we keep them separate. The following example perfectly illustrates Kant’s perspective on this issue:

“If then we call the sight of the starry heaven sublime, we must not place at the basis of our judgement a concept of worlds inhabited by rational beings, and regard the bright points, with which we see the space above us filled, as their suns moving in circles purposively fixed with reference to them; but we must regard it, just as we see it, as a distant, all embracing vault. Only under such a representation can we range that sublimity which a pure aesthetical judgement ascribes to this object. And in the same way, if we are to call the sight of the ocean sublime, we must not think of it as we (ordinarily) do, endowed as we are with all kinds of knowledge (not, contained however, in the immediate intuition). For example, we sometimes think of the ocean as a vast kingdom of aquatic creatures; or as the source as those vapours that fill the air with clouds for the benefit of the land; or again as an element which, though dividing continents from each other, yet promotes the greatest communication between them; but these furnish merely teleological judgements. To call the ocean sublime we must regard it as the poets do, merely by what strikes the eye; if it is at rest, a clear river of water only bounded by the heaven; if it is restless, as an abyss threatening to overwhelm everything.” (ibid p.82)

I find the above quote fascinating and worth thinking through in detail. Kant offers two examples; a nebula being viewed as something of awesome size that dwarfs us; and a nebula being viewed more homely as a series of stars each of which may have planets and creatures like us. The former is supposed to be sublime while the latter isn’t. His second example is the wild ocean when we consider it as something immense which could engulf us Kant says that leads to us viewing it as sublime; but when we think of it as a home for sea creatures Kant argues that it doesn’t elicit an emotional experience of the sublime.

When it comes to Kant’s contrast between the two ways of viewing the ocean I think he means to point out something that later romantics would emphasise. If we view the ocean purely naturalistically as just swirling atoms it loses some of its grandeur; but if you view it as a human powerless before its immensity it becomes sublime. Nonetheless I think Kant under-thought what a naturalistic understanding of the ocean meant.

I cannot dispute Kant on factual grounds; but since his discussion of the sublime relies on his subjective feelings re-objects of nature, I can report how things seem to me. Thinking of the ocean as a home of creatures puts me in mind of particular ecological niches and this doesn’t feel sublime. But when I reflect on creatures who have lived in the sea such as the Blue Whale, the Megalodon, or the Mosasour, I feel similar feelings that are elicited by mountain tops, or a wild ocean. With the massive sea creatures I feel dwarfed and insignificant; a mountain elicits similar feelings in me. The giant sea creatures and the mountain instil a fear in me. Furthermore, being overcome by fear would take away from the sublime feeling. But Kant would say that the sea creatures differ from the ocean because they have purpose whereas the ocean doesn’t. While Kant was correct that sea creatures are purposeful, and things like the ocean and mountains are not; there is little reason to think that this disqualifies sea creatures from eliciting sublime emotions in us. I think Kant’s imagination was stunted in a way that ours isn’t in the digital age. Today we may or may not have seen a Blue Whale in the flesh; but even if we haven’t, we have seen videos of Whales interacting with humans. Kant would have had encyclopaedic knowledge about large sea creatures; and may have seen paintings of them; but such paintings would have had no emotional punch. In contrast, the life-like videos we can produce have a different emotional feel. When we see a creature as big as a Mosaur beside a human this is different from seeing a Lion or a Tiger, the experience elicits the experience of the sublime. Again resort to a clip from Jurassic World is instructive:

In the above clip we see the Mosaur in various different guises. We see it as an attraction in a game park. The characters in the show who are watching it perform (eat the shark), view it as something to be mildly amused by. But a person in that audience could also view it as a magnificent object that dwarfs us, and other predators we fear, and let this fact elicit feelings of the sublime in them. Similarly later in the above clips we see a Mosaur swimming near a surfer. This appearance could elicit feelings of the sublime in us; though not in the case of the unfortunate person surfing near the giant creature.

Now obviously the above examples are from pop culture. But they do show that our capability to represent sea creatures who have died out 60million years before any humans ever existed, outstrips anything Kant could have dreamed of. I would argue that this fact would have serious influences on Kant’s views on the creatures who roamed the oceans. Even for more humdrum cases of creatures; such as, the Blue Whale, Great White Shark, who live in the here and now with human beings; our capacity to represent their majesty would have outstripped anything Kant could of conceived of.

The Uncanny

When discussing the uncanny Freud does so in terms of his own pretty controversial psychoanalytic views. For the present purposes we will separate ourselves from Freud’s psychoanalytic speculations and focus on the phenomena that he was trying to explain by appeal to his own peculiar brand of psychoanalytic speculation. Freud made a useful distinction of types of uncanny experiences; (1) experiences brought on by interaction with the real world, and (2) experiences brought about by confrontation with art (films, novels etc).

As an example of an Uncanny experience brought about by interaction with the real world Freud details the following experience of his:

“Strolling one hot summer afternoon through the empty and to me unfamiliar streets of a small Italian town, I found myself in a district about whose character I could not long remain in doubt. Only heavily made up-women were to be seen at the windows of the little houses, and I hastily left the narrow street at the next turning. However, after wandering about for sometime without asking the way, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence began to attract attention. Once more I hurried away, only to return there again by a different route. I was now seized by a feeling that I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad to find my way back to the Piazza that I had recently left and refrain from any further voyages of discovery.” (The Uncanny p. 144)

Freud’s example of where he experienced an uncanny feeling is an odd one. When out for a stroll he happened into a part of town frequented by hookers; embarrassed Freud left this part of town immediately. When he tried to leave this area he kept accidently returning to the very place that he wanted to avoid. This repetition from a subjective point seemed a bit odd and gave Freud an Uncanny feeling. He goes on to list repetition as a key characteristic of the uncanny. He discusses how if a particular number keeps appearing to a person over a short series of time this may elicit an uncanny feeling.

Freud’s examples of his personal experience with the uncanny don’t immediately resonate from a contemporary point of view. It’s been a hundred years since Freud wrote his essay on the uncanny; today we associate the word ‘uncanny’ with the uncanny valley a theory which argues that the closer robots get to appearing life like the more uncanny they will appear to us. Another contemporary way of understanding the concept of the uncanny is as simply as weird situations. Thus between 1952 and 1957 a magazine ran with the title ‘Uncanny Tales’ which told stories in comic book form about bizarre science fiction scenarios; some of the stories had endings which produced an uncanny feeling.

Freud was prescient in noting that fairy tales have elements which in another context would produce uncanny feelings but when reading the stories one never gets an uncanny experience. The reason being that within a given world the author is working within certain implicit rules. Thus in some stories magic exists, tea pots can talk etc. Hence when we read fairy tales and something magical happens we are not shocked[1]. In order to illicit an uncanny feeling in a novel/comic/film etc there needs to be implicit rules we expect to obtain which are suddenly violated during the story. Philip K Dick stories sometimes have an uncanny feel where we begin in a realistic universe and suddenly things slip and familiar rules no longer obtain; the familiar world is suddenly made to feel unfamiliar and strange. Kafka’s novels sometimes use this method but push things in an even further direction. His short stories sometimes begin in a hyper-realistic mode and then descend to virtually incoherent writing that illicit strong uncanny feelings at first, but as the chaos and difficulty interpreting becomes greater the uncanny feeling disappears.

Uncanny tales sometimes worked within this Freudian template. Thus while the stories were sometimes of a science fiction nature they often began with implicit rules and morals which were then violated at the end, and this produced an uncanny feeling. The popular television programme ‘The Twilight Zone’ which ran from 1959 to 1965 was a brilliant exemplar of the technique of eliciting uncanny feelings. Again the show used a similar technique to ‘Uncanny Tales’ involving realistic protagonists in day to day activities confronted by weird scenarios which elicit uncanny feelings in people watching the show.

Above I noted that the concept of the uncanny as Freud describes in terms of repetition isn’t the concept that would immediately come to mind for a contemporary reader. Today the ‘Uncanny’ is either associated with the Uncanny Valley or with weird experiences brought on by programmes like the Twilight Zone. But there are examples of the uncanny which touch on all of the above conceptions of it. A key exemplar of the uncanny (shared by Freud, Uncanny Valley and Twilight Zone episodes) is the emotional experience of viewing an object which is almost human but which isn’t quiet human. A stock illustration of the uncanny is a wax sculpture of people, or life-like dolls.

I contend that one of the core features of something being uncanny is that similar to a core feature of the sublime. While with the sublime we are appreciating a work of art that is awesome and at the fringes of our consciousness we fear it may become real; with the uncanny something similar occurs. But the uncanny is a bit different. The uncanny relies on us pre-theoretically viewing something as an object and then suddenly thinking of the object as an intentional agent. In the case of the sublime we think of the art as just art but at the fringes of our consciousness we suspect it may not just be art; but may be real and be a danger to us. With the uncanny we think of something of an inert object which resembles an intentional agent; but at the fringe of our consciousness we worry it may be a real agent observing us. With both the uncanny and the sublime we have inert matter that is intended to be a representation (simulation) of something in real; but we have another part of our mind which thinks it is a real aspect of nature or an intentional agent which could threaten us.

Representations are not that threatening and neither are inert objects. But with ambiguous objects we have a fear that what we are viewing may not be inert; but they may be real features of nature which could hurt us. The whisperers in the Walking Dead are a perfect illustration of one of the first key features of the Uncanny:

For those of you living under a rock; ‘The Walking Dead’ is a television show about a post apocalyptic world where human civilisation has been almost entirely wiped out by infectious zombies. As the show developed the zombies have played less and less of a role and the central premise has been on wars between various different groups of human survivors. The zombies stumble around and are a potential danger they can still kill and infect humans if they attack them. But they are primarily viewed as non-agents who are potentially dangerous objects. With the introduction of the whisperers this changes. The whisperers are a group of people who survived the zombie apocalypse by living amongst the zombies and dressing like them and moving like them to ensure they won’t be attacked. When our human heroes discover the existence of the whisperers amongst the zombies then the zombies become ambiguous. Any shuffling zombie has the potential to be a conscious agent. So looking at a gang of zombies can elicit a sense of the uncanny.

Both the uncanny and the sublime involve an aesthetic judgement about an aspect of nature that is hard to subsume under determinate concepts. Both involve experiences of something that is both potentially threatening and also an object arouses not entirely negative emotional interest. However, the concepts are not identical by any stretch of the imagination. The uncanny; unlike the sublime, is much more difficult to view in a disinterested manner, as it elicits stronger negative emotional experiences. But I think it is fair to say that Freud massively overestimated the differences between the two concepts.

[1] Work in Cognitive frames help explain why fairy tales don’t elicit uncanny feelings. For a good discussion of cognitive frames see Dennett, Adnams, and Hurley ‘Inside Jokes’. The theory of cognitive frames can be made largely consistent with Freudian concepts.

Nick Chater on Bertrand Russell’s Failed Marriage

In his 2018 book ‘The Mind is Flat’ Nick Chater discussed the nature of the emotions and used an example from Russell’s life to illustrate, what he believed, to be the precisely wrong way to think about our emotional experiences. In his autobiography Russell made the following point about his falling out of love with his wife:

“I went out bicycling one afternoon, and suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realised that I no longer loved Alys. I had no idea until this moment that my love for her was even lessening. The problem presented by this discovery was very grave.” (Bertrand Russell ‘The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell’ p. 222)

Chater argues that Russell’s view that he suddenly grasped some emotional truth about his love for his wife that he must act on; is based on a false theory of how the emotions work, and if others followed Russell’s specious reasoning it would be a pragmatic disaster for them. Chater’s views on the nature of the emotions are that they are ad-hoc inventions that we create to explain bodily perturbations in various different contexts. While to Russell his Bicycle ride contained a revelation he must act on; to Chater Russell’s revelation may have been caused by nothing more than a consequence of “a frustrating mornings work, or a bad argument.” Chater thinks given the ad-hoc invented nature of our feelings it would be a disaster to make decisions based on them and them alone.   However, before evaluating Chater’s take on Russell, I will first outline Chater’s positive views on the nature of the emotions.

To justify his views on the emotions Chater discussed a famous psychological result called the Kuleshov effect which illustrates that we interpret some emotional expressions of people’s faces depending on the context the face is presented in. Thus a person with an ambiguous expression will be judged to be hungry when placed beside food, or sad when placed beside a coffin etc. Chater notes that there is a general principle underlying this effect:

“There is a general principle at work here-the brain interprets each piece of the perceptual input (each face, object symbol, or whatever it may be) to make as much sense as possible in the light of the wider context.” (‘The Mind is Not Flat’ p. 92)


Based on this single experimental result Hacker generalizes further and argues that understanding of our emotional experiences may be subject to the Kuleshov effect. He notes that our own physiological states such as our heart racing, our breath shortening, and the tingle of adrenaline racing through our arteries (ibid p. 94), are ambiguous stimuli, and that in an attempt to interpret these stimuli we will invent emotional states to explain the stimuli.

To support this interpretation Chater discussed a 1962 experiment by Singer and Schacter which involved injecting volunteer subjects with either adrenaline or a placebo and bringing them to the waiting room. Unknown to the subjects, the waiting room was an experimental setting where a paid actor pretended to be a fellow subject but acted in a bizarre way (either manically or angrily). The subjects who were injected with adrenaline had stronger emotional reactions than those who received a placebo (ibid p. 95). Chater notes the following:

Crucially, and remarkably, their emotional reactions were stronger in opposite directions. Confronted with the ‘manic’ stooge, participants interpreted their raised heart-rate, shortness of breath and flushed face as indicating their euphoria; but with the ‘angry’ stooge, those very same symptoms were interpreted as signalling irritation.” (ibid p. 95)

The above experiment is an example of Kuleshov effect where bodily perturbations (brought on by adrenaline) are interpreted differently depending on contextual factors (the stooges behaviour).

Chater cites other experimental data to support his claim that emotions are ad-hoc creations to explain bodily perturbations and changing contexts. Thus he cites Aron and Dutton’s 1970 experiment placed an attractive scientist at the end of a rickety, wobbly bridge and an attractive scientist at the end of sturdy bridge. When the subjects crossed the bridge the scientist asked them a few questions and then handed them her phone number. Interestingly the experiment showed that the men who crossed the rickety bridge were more likely to ring the scientist. Chater interprets the experiment as revealing that the subjects were interpreting the bodily perturbations resulting from crossing the dangerous bridge as a feeling of attraction when they met the scientist.

Given Chater’s views of emotions as ad-hoc inventions used to explain bodily perturbations in various contexts, one can see why Chater was appalled by Russell’s admission that he fell out of love with his wife as a result of a momentary revelation. On Chater’s views Russell was operating under a confusion and mistakenly confusing momentary bodily perturbations and contextual factors with a universal revelation about his love for his wife. In point of fact it is Chater who is confused, and his confusion stems from a poor understanding of the nature of love (and emotions in general). Chater is incorrectly equating having an emotion with experiencing a particular feeling. Now while some emotional states do sometimes have a particular feel; not all of them do. Thus a mother can love her child without her love being identified with a particular experience. When a mother goes to sleep she doesn’t cease to love her child. Likewise when a mother goes to lunch with her daughter she may at times feel a strong sensation of love for her daughter; but at other times she is simply engaged in the conversation without experiencing any particular feeling of love. Nonetheless, it would be absurd to argue that the mother ceases to love her child when she ceases to have a particular warm fuzzy feeling. Love involves more than just idiosyncratic bodily sensations. To love someone; one will feel a certain way about the object of one’s love, one will behave in a certain way towards the object of one’s affection, speak about them in a certain manner etc.

Chater was right to note that explaining the emotions will involve dealing with contextual matters and bodily states. But his understanding of the emotions focuses too much on the feelings we create to explain bodily states and context; and too little on long term behavioural patterns; and cognitive understanding of what these patterns mean etc.

In Russell’s case his behaviour towards his wife in the years preceding his ‘revelation’ that he didn’t love her was revealing. In his biography on Russell ‘The Spirit of Solitude’ Ray Monk noted that in 1901 while working on his philosophical projects, Russell treated his wife like an afterthought who was simply there to serve him (The Spirit of Solitude p. 118).

Furthermore, while Russell was showing little interest in his own wife, he spent a considerable amount of time flirting with his wife’s sister Mary. Mary for her part noted that his constant flirtation made her very uncomfortable (ibid p. 120). While noting his flirtation with her, Mary also noted Russell’s disinterest towards his wife and homelife:

 “Mary recorded…”Bertie says he has resigned himself to being always bored after he is thirty. ‘At home even?’ Alys asked. ‘Especially at home, ‘Bertie answered remorselessly.” (ibid p. 121)

His entire marriage seemed to involve disinterest in his wife Alys and a constant chasing after other women; such as the above mentioned Mary, Sally Fairchild, Evelyn Whitehead etc. In the case of Evelyn Whitehead, Russell actually fell in love with her and spent the majority of his time worrying about her health while seemingly having little concern for his wife’s health.

Such was Russell’s intense love for Evelyn Whitehead that Ray Monk suspects that Alys was aware of it:

 “Alys had no doubt ‘perceived that something was amiss’ a good deal before this famous bicycle ride, as her depressions during the spring and summer of 1901 surely indicate. And, as Russell’s diary entry reveals, he too had been struggling for some time against the realisation that his love for Alys was dead (he had, after all, ‘longed, with infinite tenderness, to revivify my dying ‘love’ a month before the bicycle ride).  Nevertheless, though Russell clearly massively exaggerates-as is his wont-the extent to which it was a sudden and unexpected revelation, there seems no reason to doubt that there was a bicycle ride and that there was a moment when he ceased to struggle against the facts and to admit to himself that he no longer loved Alys.” (ibid p.145)

Given these facts about Russell’s relationship with his wife in the years before his ‘revelation’; Chater’s suggestion that Russell’s ‘revelation’ may have been the result of frustrating mornings work or a bad argument’ strain credulity. The fact is that Russell’s behaviour; neglecting his wife, having infatuations with, and falling in love with other women, commenting on not enjoying home life, writing in his diary about trying to rekindle dying love; indicate a man who had fallen out of love with his wife over a long period of time (though he clearly had difficulty admitting this fact to himself).

Furthermore this falling out of love didn’t involve a particular bodily feel rather it was a complex cognitive, emotional and behavioural experience. Chater though could argue against what I have just said by noting that it was Russell himself who said that he only realised he stopped loving his wife when he was out for that fatal bike ride. Chater could argue that if we go by Russell’s words his falling out of love was a sudden event that Russell accorded too much significance.

However, it is unclear how much significance we should accord to Russell’s sudden ‘revelation’. As Monk noted:

“Russell was fond-perhaps over-fond-of presenting his life as a series of epiphanies, many of which, one suspects were over played by him in later life for the sake of lending drama to the facts of his life” (ibid p. 137)

Russell may have had the ‘revelation’ while out cycling his bike. However, his behavioural patterns indicate a man who was no longer in love with his wife in the years before his revelation. The fact is that it took years after his ‘revelation’ before he finally divorced his wife, and in the years before it, he behaved like a man falling out of love with his wife. There is little reason to give the supposed revelation such a place of importance in Russell’s relations with his wife as Chater (and Russell) seem to want to give it.

Brokering peace between Discovery and The Orville.

“…this whole business of “canon” really originated with Gene’s errand boy. Gene liked giving people titles instead of raises, so the errand boy got named “archivist” and apparently it went to his head. Gene handed him the responsibility of answering all fan questions, silly or otherwise, and he apparently let that go to his head.” (David Gerrold ‘Interview about Star Trek The Animated Series’)

Online articles discussing ‘Star Trek Discovery’ comment sections are filled with assertions like the following: “Discovery isn’t Star Trek”, or “If you want to watch Star Trek then watch the Orville”. Now in a sense this debate is absurd. Obviously there is no Star Trek out there in the universe and hence no fact of the matter as to whether the Orville or Discovery is a member of the Star Trek Universe. The debate is usually framed interms of the spirit (what philosophers would call the essence) of the fictional Star Trek world.

A lot of Trek fans would trace the essence of Star Trek to the intentions of its creator Gene Roddenberry. However, as we all know a person’s intentions don’t remain static throughout his life, a person could hold a view x about y over a period of 5 years and hold different views about y over the next 5 years. So after that person has died can we say that view x or view z are his true intentions? In Roddenberry’s case we know that his views about Star Trek changed between The Original Series and The Next Generation (henceforth TOS and TNG). When doing TOS he just viewed it as a television show; but later in life he believed he was selling a way of life. Which is Roddenberry’s true intention? The earlier view and intentional states towards those views or the later ones?

An example of Roddenberry’s different intentional views about Star Trek can be seen in differences between TOS and TNG.  In TOS there was conflict between the crew of the Enterprise which was missing from the first two seasons of TNG. In TOS crabby doctor McCoy and Mr Spock didn’t see eye to eye and had a lot of arguments over the years. But in the first two years of TNG such conflict was minimized by Roddenberry because it conflicted with his vision of the future where humans would have evolved beyond these petty disputes. Now if your argument is that true Trek is the Trek that corresponds to Roddenberry’s intentions then you need to decide which set of his intentions is the one that must be sacrosanct. There seems to be little way of deciding which of Roddenberry’s intentions are his true intentions and hence no way to use Roddenberry’s intentions to pick out the essence of Trek.

But there is a sense in which it doesn’t matter that we can’t pick out Roddenberry’s true intentions re-Trek philosophy. Virtually all Star Trek fans would argue that both TOS and TNG are true Trek despite the divergent philosophies. This divergence disappeared once Roddenberry died and TNG writers allowed tensions between the characters in TNG. Yet very few people would argue that TNG isn’t true Trek today.

There are possible points of disagreement as to whether TOS or TNG are both Star Trek. But it is safe to say that most fans would agree that they are. Few debate the issue today and would include both TOS and TNG in the cannon.  Most fans would agree that DS9 is Trek; but there is less consensus that it belongs there than there is with TNG. Why? Well a number of reasons. Firstly anybody who has watched DS9 will know that is gritty. TNG tried to be more confrontational than it was in its first two seasons, but overall it portrayed humans in a fairly utopian light. DS9 on the other hand portrayed humanity in a darker way than TNG did. Thus in an episode of DS9 called ‘Hard Time’ Chief of Operations Miles O Brien tries to return to normal life after a period of incarceration. The episode culminates with O Brien confessing to (virtually) murdering his cell mate, while incarcerated. O Brien makes the following point: “we in the federation think we are so great and evolved; but take away our creature comforts for a while and we are no different from the Cardassians or the Klingons”. In a later episode ‘In Pale Moonlight’ the Captain of DS9 conspires to trick the Romulans into joining the Dominion-Federation war. The trick results in a Romulan ambassador being murdered. At the end of the episode Sisko notes that the murder had a high moral price but that the price was worth paying if it helped win the war.  In general DS9 blurred the boundaries between the humans and the aliens much more than either TNG or TOS did. DS9 gave us the infamous Section 31, a covert federation intelligence agency which engages in assassinations, destroying of enemy technology, destabilization of governments etc. The introduction of Section 31 into DS9 split a lot of Star Trek fans. A lot of people believed that Section 31 betrayed Roddenberry’s utopian ideals. For these Star Trek fans DS9 had betrayed a key factor that is essential for something to be Trek; viewing the future of humanity as a utopia where we moved beyond our baser instincts.

But the blurring of the boundaries between humans and alien (bad guys) wasn’t the only reason that DS9 is considered less Trek than TNG. Another reason is the origin of DS9. As every nerd knows the classic Scfi show Babylon 5 was originally pitched to Paramount. As folklore has it Paramount gave Babylon 5 a hard pass. They thought it was too much money to create a new franchise. But a clever executive hit upon the idea “we own this Star Trek show; what if we just make Babylon 5 a part of the universe?”. So if you believe the folklore; DS9 was just another show stolen and transplanted into the Trek Universe. Then you have to dismiss it as a Trek show. In his ‘Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5: Remarkably Similar or Similarly Remarkable’ Rich Handley noted a lot of similarities between the two shows. (1) Both were set on space stations with single digit names, (2) Both stations were used to foster peace between former enemies, (3) both were administered by an earth government but were located outside of earth’s territory, (4) both stations had massive weapons upgrade at the midpoint of the shows, and formed an alliance with former enemies to win a battle against a new foe, (5) both shows centred on a deeply religious people who were formerly enslaved and were trying to assert themselves now, (6) Both shows features god like entities who were worshiped by less advanced races, (7) Both shows had a shadow department of earths main government (section 31, and bureau 13), (8) Both shows’ pilots featured an alien shape shifter in its first episode.  Handley goes on to point out many more similarities between the shows, which we don’t need to go into here. The point is that for many fans DS9 was not really Trek, as it was basically a rip off of another show and it featured a much more dystopian philosophy than a typical Star Trek does.  For these reasons a minority of Star Trek fans dismiss DS9 as not true Trek.

But his move has a price. There are causal interactions between the shows. The vast vast majority of Trek fans (maybe 95 percent of fans) will admit that TOS, TNG, and Voyager are in the Trek Universe. But whether they like it or not there have been causal interactions between the characters in those shows and in DS9. Piccard was in DS9 and played a role in the psychological development of the star of DS9 (Captain Sisko) life. Characters from Voyager appeared briefly in the DS9 universe. DS9 had characters who were in TNG; O Brien, and Worf. Major Kera was originally supposed to be a character from TNG Ro Laren, but when the actor who played Laren turned down the role a new character was created instead.  DS9 even had an episode set in TOS where one of the characters (who was also in TNG), commented on the different appearance of the Klingons in TOS, TNG, DS9. Now given these causal interactions between the characters, between the shows it is hard for a fan of TOS and TNG to deny a place for DS9 in the cannon. So even though there are a few hold outs most Trek Fans are on board with DS9 as cannon despite some misgivings about both its underlying philosophy and its alleged nefarious origins.

Predictably as we move further from the original series people diverged further. Star Trek (by Trek here I speak of the company not the essence of the word) has four phases (1) TOS, (2) TNG, DS9, Voyager, (3) Enterprise (4) Discovery, New Picard Series etc. Discovery was explicitly created to be a part of the Trek Universe it was meant to be a prequel to TOS. Now there is very little debate re the first two phases (except DS9).  The show Enterprise was to some degree more Trek than DS9, it wasn’t an idea taken from another series co-opted for Trek. It was created and conceived by Trek people, and they worked their asses off to match the facts of the Trek Universe (conceived as TOS, TNG, DS9, VOYAGER).

Now most fans of Trek are ambivalent about Enterprise, but they grudgingly accept it as a member of the universe. They just don’t like the show and pretend it didn’t exist (because it was garbage). Ok so given all this history we have a set of shows (TOS, TNG, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise) which 80 percent of fans would agree are members of the Trek Universe. DS9 is the most controversial member of the list of cannon shows but the vast majority of fans would even accept that it is a member of the Trek Universe. With the invention of Discovery things changed. Here again I am pulling numbers out of my ass. But I would think that at least 50 percent of fans argue that Discovery isn’t Trek. In fact these people argue that ‘The Orwell’ is the true heir of Trek.

The owners of Trek define anything as cannon that is either one of their TV shows or one of their films. Thus on their view books written about the show, comics etc are non cannon. By this criterion Discovery is cannon and the Orville being a different franchise isn’t. But whatever the pronouncements of the owners of Trek make; fans will argue the point and a lot of them disagree with the owners pronouncements.

Some fans argue that despite what the current owners may declare about cannon the real way to decide the issue is to go to Roddenberry’s intentions. As we saw above this approach has its problems as Roddenberry being human had shifting intentions throughout his life time. It is impossible to distil essence of Roddenberry’s intentions re- the Star Trek universe. Furthermore, Roddenberry had a cavalier attitude based on his particular likes or dislikes on the day. So, for example, because he recognised that the conflict between the characters on board the enterprise in TOS conflicted with his new philosophy in TNG, Roddenberry at one point declared that TOS wasn’t cannon (Star Trek Cannon Wiki). It would be a hard pill for a Trek fundamentalist to have to follow Roddenberry in this respect and deny that TOS was real Trek.

Roddenberry’s intentions seem too arbitrary to fix the cannon of Star Trek. Similar considerations apply to the decisions of the people who own the legal rights of Star Trek. They can legally define anything they want as Star Trek. But such definitions amount to nothing more than stipulations as to what should or should not count as Star Trek. Such stipulations have no real normative force. If the company which owns Star Trek decides to buy the rights of Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’, and calls it ‘Star Trek Tidying up’, but in no way connects it with the Star Trek universe very few people would consider it Star Trek cannon no matter what the executives claim.

Based on Roddenberry’s intentions it is difficult to know how he would have viewed The Orwell and Discovery. Though given Roddenberry’s utopian leanings it is probable that he would have considered The Orwell closer to the spirit of Star Trek than Discovery is. The Orwell is basically intended to be a rip off of TNG written to be a bit more comedic than TNG. It shares a similar structure to TNG. Each episode is a self contained story where the characters meet challenges and overcome them in a single story arc of one episode. There are aliens and androids in the show who serve as outsiders who help us look at humanity in a new light. The heroes of the show work according to enlightened rules, which focus on respecting the autonomy of other cultures. They must sometimes bend these enlightened rules but they do so for typically noble reasons. It is hard to watch the show and not be reminded of the TNG.

Discovery is very different in tone and execution than any of the previous Trek shows. In tone it is closest to DS9 because of its much darker take on humanities nature in the future. However, it is much darker than DS9, while DS9 had dark episodes; these episodes were the exception to the general Trek utopian fare. In Discovery, dark episodes are the rule. Furthermore, the structure of the show was changed for Discovery. While all of the previous Star Treks were episodic in nature[1]; Discovery is serialized. Each episode is a link in an overall story arc that spanned the entire season.

However, it wasn’t just Discoveries serialized nature, and its darker tone that led to fans dismissing as not really Trek. Discovery was sold as a prequel to Star Trek set prior to TOS. However, Discovery radically re-designed one of the main species ‘The Klingons’, so that they didn’t even resemble what Klingons originally looked like. Discovery had technology which seemed inconsistent with other Trek shows. Given Discoveries, different tone, different structure, different technology, etc to a lot of fans it just didn’t feel like Trek. The Orwell, on the other hand, was strangely familiar.

Hence you get Trek fans shouting in forums ‘DISCOVERY ISN’T REAL TREK’, or ‘THE ORWELL IS THE REAL TREK SHOW’. These people of course face the same problems that were faced by people who argue that DS9 isn’t real Trek. Discovery has causal interaction with the other Trek series; Spock, Sarek, and Amanda are characters who were in TOS, TNG, and Discovery. Despite the complaints of Trek fans Discovery will be held as cannon by the Trek franchise and it will continue to intermingle with the characters and themes from other Trek shows and films.

A typical response of the Trek fundamentalist will be to say that they don’t care what the execs do; they are not going to view Discovery as real Trek.  The reasons that are typically given to justify those stances are the ones I outlined above. However, these reasons don’t really stand up to critical scrutiny. So, for example, it is true that the Klingons in Discovery look very different than the Klingons we are used to seeing on Trek. But the same could be said about the Klingons in TOS these Klingons were barely distinguishable from humans. It was only in the Star Trek movies that we see the heavily rigged brows of the Klingons that we are familiar with today. TNG, DS9 and Voyager all followed the movies in the way they designed the Klingons. So if a person wanted to argue that change in appearance of Klingons is the reason that Discovery isn’t Trek, then if they are reasoning consistently they will have to argue that all shows (and movies) except TOS aren’t cannon Trek. This is a pretty desperate move but it can be avoided by arguing TOS like Discovery isn’t Trek. It is doubtful any Trek Fundamentalist would place so much weight on the appearance of the Klingons. They would probably just argue that the look of Klingons in Discovery is just a mild irritant and not a reason to block it from being cannon.

A more common reason to doubt whether Discovery is cannon is to argue that its radically different tone doesn’t fit with the Trek universe. But again this reasoning is hard to sustain. The tone of DS9 was much darker than either TOS or TNG. The tone of TOS was different from the early seasons of TNG. So a different tone in the shows shouldn’t necessarily be a justified reason to push something out of the cannon. Now our fundamentalist could argue that the other shows may have had a somewhat different tone from each other at times but the difference was relatively small. Whereas the difference between Discovery and other Treks is very large; so large that this rules out it being considered real Trek. If our fundamentalist used this argument they would need to say how large the gap between a TV show and Trek cannon must be before we can say they don’t belong together. However no such criterion has ever been supplied.

The other piece of evidence that is offered to demonstrate that Discovery isn’t Trek is the massive continuity errors that exist between Discovery and the other Trek shows. However, this argument doesn’t really work either as these continuity errors also exist between all of the various different Trek shows; the Q continuum cannot reproduce in TNG but can in Voyager, First contact with the Borg was supposed to have occurred in TNG as a result of Q’s intervention, but the Borg are in the prequel Enterprise, and in Voyager we are told of humans encountering the Borg years before first contact was supposed to have occurred. In TNG Scotty asks about Kirks health but in ‘Generations’ we are shown Scotty witnessing Kirks death. There are countless other continuity errors between the various shows and films so it would be arbitrary to exclude Discovery as real Trek because of continuity errors but give the other shows a free pass.

In all of these debates about whether Discovery is real Trek or not it isn’t it is never made clear what could possibly count as an answer. The execs just stipulate what is or isn’t cannon as it suits their interests. While the fans seem to just rely on lose intuitions about what is or isn’t cannon. From a metaphysical perspective there seems to be no sensible way of making the distinction.

Since at least the time of Plato over two thousand years ago philosophers have been active in the search for the essence of our various different concepts such as Justice, Truth, etc. While Plato’s famous student Aristotle was sceptical about a lot of Plato’s philosophy he accepted the position that our concepts are like containers with which something was either a member of or wasn’t a member of. This view about the nature of concepts has been implicitly accepted by most scientists and philosophers over the last two thousand years.

However in the middle of the twentieth century Aristotle’s concept of concept came under pressure by the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein argued that we should view concepts interms of family resemblances:

“Consider, for example, the activities that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, athletic games, and so on. What is common to all of them? Don’t say: “they must have something in common, or they would not be called games”- but look and see whether they have anything common to all of them-for if you look at them, you won’t see something that is common to all, but similarities, affinities, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!-look, for example, at board games, with their various affinities. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. Are they all entertaining? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between the players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of singing and dancing games; here we have the element of entertainment, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many other groups of games in the same way, can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the upshot of these considerations is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: similarities in the large and the small.” (Wittgenstein ‘Philosophical Investigations p. 36)

This understanding of the nature of concepts has been empirically supported over the last 70 years with the work of Lakoff 1987, Hofstadter 2016 etc. And adopting this perspective allows the us to dismiss the type of debates that occur in internet forums. There is no such thing as Star Trek cannon. Just a series of stories held together by shared themes, and a roughly drawn shared history which is somewhat inconsistent at places. Instead of saying ‘Discovery is not Trek’, a better thing to say would be ‘Discovery doesn’t share most of the key features that I liked in the other trek series; in many ways The Orville resembles the Trek shows I liked more than Discovery’. This type of language may make online debates less vicious because people will no longer think that they are arguing for the essence of Trek. Rather they are just noting what series of properties within the various loosely connected series of shows and films appeals to them.

So there you have it. One Wittgenstein quote and I have brokered world peace between warring Trek Factions. I will be expecting my Nobel Prize in the post anytime soon 😀

[1] DS9 was a bit of a hybrid. While technically it was episodic; the Dominion war in the last few seasons was kind of serialized.

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.