Jerry Fodor And Philosophical Practice

I wrote a short post on Facebook today, making note of the passing away of Jerry Fodor:

Much as I admired Fodor’s writing chops, I deplored the way he did philosophy. The stories of his ‘put-downs’ and sarcastic, ironic, ‘devastating’ objections, questions, or responses in seminars always left me feeling like this was not how I understood philosophy as a practice. The admiration all those around me extended to Fodor was a significant component in me feeling alienated from philosophy during graduate school. (It didn’t help that in the one and only paper I wrote on Fodor–in refuting his supposed critique of Quine‘s inscrutability of reference claim–I found him begging the question rather spectacularly.) I had no personal contact with him, so I cannot address that component of him; all I can say is that from a distance, he resembled too many other academic philosophers: very smart folk, but not people I felt I could work with or for, or converse with to figure out things together.

In response, a fellow philosopher wrote to me:

[H]onestly that was my impression of Fodor also….while I too didn’t ever even meet him in person, I thought much of his rhetoric was nasty and unfair, that he routinely caricatured positions of others and then sort of pranced around about how he had totally refuted them, and that he basically ignored criticism…he was very far from what I would take to be a model for the profession….I got the impression that pretty much every other philosopher he mentioned was just a foil – produce a sort of comic book version of them to show how much better his view was.

There has been plenty of praise for Fodor on social media, much of which made note of precisely the style I pointed out above, albeit in admiring tones. In their obit for FodorThe London Review of Books paid attention to similar issues:

Jerry Fodor, who died yesterday, wrote thirty pieces for the LRB….Many of them were on philosophy of mind…more often than not, lucidly explaining how the books under review had got it all wrong….His literary criticism included a withering review of a pair of ‘amply unsuccessful’ novels about apes; and he had this to say of Steven Pinker’s view of Hamlet in his demolition of psychological Darwinism:

And here [Pinker] is on why we like to read fiction: ‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?’ Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.

Unsurprisingly, this quote from Fodor was cited as a ‘sick burn’ on Twitter–as an example of his ‘genteel trash talk.’ But a second’s reading of Pinker, and of the response above by Fodor, shows that Fodor is again operating at his worst here. The paragraph cited is a deliberately obtuse and highly superficial reading of Pinker’s claim. Do we have to think about the specific events in Hamlet in order to ponder the ethical dilemmas that the play showcases for us? Is this why people have the emotional responses they do to Hamlet? Or is it because they are able to recognize and internalize the intractability of the issues that Hamlet raises? Do we need to specifically think about rings, dwarfs, and giants in order to specifically ponder the abstract problems that lie at the heart of the tale Fodor cites? Indeed, the many folks who have read these stories over the years seem–in their emotional responses–to have been perfectly capable of separating their concrete particulars from the concepts they traffic in. Fodor does not bother to offer a charitable reading of Pinker; he sets off immediately to scorn and ridicule. This kind of philosophy, and this kind of writing, earns plenty of applause from those who imagine philosophy to be a contact sport. But it does little to advance philosophical thinking on the issues at play.

The Inseparability Of The Form And Content Of Arguments

Is it more important for philosophers to argue well than it is to write well? Posed this way, the question sets up a false dichotomy for you cannot argue well without writing well. Logic is not identical with rhetoric, but the logical form of an argument cannot be neatly drawn apart from its rhetorical component. (Classical rhetoric has been insisting forever that we cannot separate form and content.) We define validity and soundness of an argument in formal semantic and syntactical terms; and unsurprisingly, those notions find their greatest traction when evaluating arguments expressed in formal languages. But philosophical disputation takes place using natural  languages; and arguments are made in order to persuade or convince or induce other changes in the epistemic make-up of our interlocutors.

We argue with someone, somewhere, in some time and context; we argue to achieve some end, whether moral, political, economic, legal. Any evaluation of the arguments we make must take these factors into consideration; without them at hand, our evaluations are sterile and pointless. (Why, after all, do we concern ourselves with notions of epistemic justice if not for the fact that some arguments are more likely to be ‘heard’ than others?) Fallacies abound in natural language arguments; correcting them is not just a matter of paying attention to the abstract logical form of the argument ‘underlying’ the sentences we have deployed; it is a matter too, or making sure we have chosen the right words, and deployed them appropriately in the correct context. To use an example from an older post, we reject a smoker’s argument that we should stop smoking on ad-hominem grounds, but the smoker really should have known better than to try to convince someone to quit while puffing away merrily and seemingly enjoying deep lungfuls of smoke. Good argument; terrible form. The same smoker would find a more receptive audience if he spoke with some feeling about how miserable his health has become over the years thanks to his smoking habit.

(On a related note, consider that when programmers evaluate ‘good code,’ they do so on the basis of not just the effective functionality of the code in accomplishing its task, which is a purely technical notion, but also on aesthetic notions: Is the code readable? Can it be modified easily? Is it ‘beautiful’? No programmer of any worth elides these notions in evaluative assessment of written code.)

There is a larger issue at play here. Philosophers do much more than just argue; sometimes they just point in a particular direction, or make us notice something that we had not seen before, or sometimes they clothe the world in a different form. These activities have little to do with arguing ‘correctly.’ They do, however, have a great deal to do with effective communication. Writing is one such form, so is speaking.

Note: The examples of great philosophers who are considered ‘terrible’ or ‘obscure’ writers–by some folks–does not diminish the point made here. Hegel and Heidegger–with due apologies to Hegel-and-Heidegger-philes–achieved their fame not just because of the quality or depth of the arguments they offered in their works but also because they wrote from particular locations, in particular times. (Some think they made terrible arguments, of course!) The sociology of philosophy has a great deal to say about these matters; more philosophers should pay attention to it.

John David Mabbott And Two Influential Paragraphs

In the summer of 1992, I had begun to consider the possibility of returning to graduate school–this time for a new program in study in an unfamiliar field: philosophy. I had no previous academic exposure to philosophy so I would have to begin at the ‘bottom’: by taking classes as a non-matriculate student, and then on the basis of the grades secured in those, seeking admission in a graduate program. I was not entirely decided on this course of action; much uncertainty, a reduced income, and possible unemployment lay ahead.

That same summer I traveled home to India, met my mother, told her of my plans and was gratified to find out she approved. While in India, I went rummaging through my father’s book collection and brought back a few tomes to adorn my shelves. Among them was J. D. Mabbott‘s The State and the Citizen: An Introduction to Political Philosophy. An inscription on the book’s frontispiece–in my father’s distinctive handwriting–informed me my father had bought the book in 1962 at a bookstore in Bombay. In the first section ‘From Hobbes to Hegel,’ in the first chapter ‘The Use of Authorities,’ on page 9 I came across the following passage:

The philosopher does not discover new facts. His concern is our everyday view with its common landmarks, duty, obedience, law, desire. He does not set out, as the scientist does, grasping his compass, towards lands no man has trod, nor return thence bearing strange treasures and stranger tales. He is rather to be pictured ascending the tower of some great cathedral such as was St. Stephen’s, Vienna. As he goes up the spiral stairway, the common and particular details of life, the men and tramcars, shrink to invisibility and the big landmarks shake themselves clear. Little windows open at his elbow with widening views. There is conscience; over there is duty; there is conscience again looking quite different from this new level; now he is high enough to see law and liberty from one window. And ever there haunts the vision of the summit, where there is a little room with windows all round, where he may recover his breath and see the view as a whole, and the Schottenkirche and the Palace of Justice in their true relative proportions, and where that gargoyle (determinism, was it?) which loomed in on him so menacingly at one stage in his ascent shall have shrunk to the speck that it is.

We shall be told that no one reaches the top. A philosopher who ceases to climb does so only because he gets tired; and he remains crouched against some staircase window, commanding but a dusty and one-sided view at best, obstinately proclaiming to the crowds below who do not listen, that he is at the summit and can see the whole city. That may be so. Yet the climb itself is not without merit for those whose heads can stand the height and the circling of the rising spiral; and, even at the lowest windows, one is above the smoke and can see proportions more clearly so that men and tramcars can never look quite the same again.

Once I was done reading that passage, I knew my decision to study philosophy was the correct one. I was exhilarated; I felt new adventures, new journeys, novel sights and experiences lay ahead. I had felt, just by Mabbott’s description of the philosopher’s elevation, elevated myself. No description of any academic field I had ever read before had ever captivated me so. I wanted more; I couldn’t wait to start studying philosophy seriously.

John David Mabbott remains an obscure philosopher to this day. I’ve never read anything else by him, or seen a citation to him anywhere in any philosophical text I’ve read. But without exaggeration, these two paragraphs of his rank among the most influential pieces of writing I’ve ever read.  And of course, my father, by buying his book, had made it possible for me to encounter them. Many thanks to the both of them.

Note: Needless to say, I still own The State and the Citizen–it’s falling apart but I won’t let go.

The Acknowledgments Section As Venue For Disgruntlement

In The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre  (University of Chicago Press, 1985) David P. Jordan writes in the ‘Acknowledgments’ section:

With the exception of the Humanities Institute of the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose fellowship gave me the leisure to rethink and rewrite, no fund or foundation, agency or institution, whether public or private local or national, thought a book on Robespierre worthy of support. [pp xi-xii; citation added]

Shortly after I had defended my doctoral dissertation, I got down to the pleasant–even if at times irritatingly bureaucratic–process of depositing a copy with the CUNY Graduate Center’s Mina Rees Library. The official deposited copy of the dissertation required the usual accouterments: a title page, a page for the signatures of the dissertation committee, an abstract page, an optional page for a dedication, and lastly, the acknowledgements. The first four of these were easily composed–I dedicated my dissertation to my parents–but the fifth one, the acknowledgements, took a little work.

In part, this was because I did not want to be ungracious and not make note of those who had tendered me considerable assistance in my long and tortuous journey through the dissertation. I thanked the usual suspects–my dissertation adviser, various members of the faculty, many friends, and of course, family. I restricted myself to a page–I continue to think multi-page acknowledgments are a tad self-indulgent–and did not try to hard to be witty or too effusive in the thanks I expressed.

And then, I thought of sneaking in a snarky line that went as follows:

Many thanks to the City University of New York which taught me how to make do with very little.

I was still disgruntled by the lack of adequate financial support through my graduate studies: fellowships and assistantships had been hard to come by; occasional tuition remissions had somewhat sweetened the deal, but I had often had to pay full resident tuition for a semester; and like many other CUNY graduate students, I had found myself teaching too many classes as an underpaid adjunct over the years. I was disgruntled too, by the poor infrastructure that my cohort contended with: inadequate library and computing resources were foremost among these. (During the last two years of my dissertation, I taught at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and so had access to the Bobst Library and NYU’s computing facilities; these made my life much easier.)

In the end, I decided against it; my dissertation was over and done with, and I wanted to move on. A parting shot like the one above would have made felt like I still harbored resentments, unresolved business of a kind. More to the point, the Graduate Center, by generously allowing to me enroll as a non-matriculate student eight years previously, had taken a chance on me, and kickstarted my academic career. For that, I was still grateful.

I deleted the line, and deposited the dissertation.

Note #1: An academic colleague who finished his dissertation around the time I did dedicated his dissertation to his three-year old son as follows:

Dedicated to ‘T’ without whom this dissertation would have been finished much earlier.

Fair enough.

My First Academic Conference

The first academic conference I attended was the 1999 Annual Meeting of the Association of Symbolic Logic, held at the University of California at San Diego. I submitted an abstract for a presentation, which was accepted, and so off I went, hoping to gain ‘experience’ and ‘exposure.’ My paper was based on part of my then in-progress dissertation; to be more precise, it presented the first model of belief revision I was currently working on with my thesis advisor.

I  had applied for, and received, some limited funds for travel–these barely covered the flight to San Diego and did not help with car rental fees. (I had arranged housing with a philosophy graduate student at UCSD.) I arrived in San Diego, picked up my rental car, and drove to my host’s place. The next morning the conference began, and so did my disorientation.

First, I was in the wrong conference. This meeting’s attendance was mostly comprised of mathematical logicians (set theorists, model theorists, proof theorists, recursion theorists, complexity theorists, and the like) – no one was likely to be interested in the model of belief revision I was presenting. It was simply not interesting enough, at the formal and mathematical level, for this crowd. And its philosophical underpinnings and motivations were hardly likely to be of interest either; those features were not the sorts of things mathematical logicians looked for in the formal work that was being presented that weekend.

Second,  as a related consequence, I knew no one.  This was an academic community I had no previous contact with–I knew no faculty or graduate students in it. I wandered around the halls and rooms, occasionally striking up brief conversations with students, sometimes introducing myself to faculty. My thesis adviser was known to some of the faculty I introduced myself to; this fact allowed for some useful ice-breaking in conversations. (I also managed to embarrass myself by pushing copies of my paper into some hands.) But mostly, I stayed on the peripheries of these social spaces.

Third, the subject matter of the talks was utterly unfamiliar and incomprehensible. I had studied some logic, but I was an amateur yet. And the inclinations of the mathematical logicians who comprised the primary attendance at this conference were pitched entirely differently from the philosophical logic I had been exposed to: their work was almost entirely concerned with the mathematical properties of the frameworks they worked on. I attended a couple of talks, but all too soon, bewildered and bored, I gave up.

I did not feel I belonged. Not here, not at any academic conference. I was intimidated and made diffident; my doubts about my choice of career and dissertation topic grew. By the second day of the conference, this feeling had grown worse, not ideal preparation for my talk. Quaking in my boots at the thought of being exposed to a grilling by a heavy hitter in the audience, my nervousness knew few bounds. Fortunately, the worst case did not eventuate; I put up my slides, described the work underway, answered a perfunctory question or two, and walked off the ‘stage,’ relieved. 

That year, the final year of my dissertation work, I attended three more conferences–a graduate student meeting at Brown, and international professional conferences in Sweden and Greece. By the end of the summer, I was a little more comfortable in my skin at these spaces. One such attendance almost certainly helped secure me a post-doctoral fellowship. (Yet another saw me lost again among mathematical logicians.)

Over the years, I’ve attended many more. But I never got really comfortable with conferences; I never felt like I fitted in. Now, I don’t go to conferences any more; the travel sounds interesting, but the talks, the questions and answer sessions, the social schmoozing, the dinners, (and the conference fees!) don’t sound enticing. I prefer smaller-scale, more personally pitched interactions with my fellow academics.  But perhaps a suitable conference venue–with mountains close by–will overcome this reticence.

The Contingency Of Academic, ‘Disciplinary’ Classification

The textbook I use for my Social Philosophy class, Social Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Present (ed. Alan Sica, Pearson, 2005) is a standard anthology featuring selections from a wide range of historical periods and schools of thought (and the theorists identified with them). This collection may not only serve as ‘a textbook of social philosophy’ in a philosophy department. The following alternative uses for it–in various domains of pedagogy and academic learning–are also possible.

  1. As a textbook in a sociology department for an introductory class in social theory. This might have been Social Thought’s original intended use. The table of contents makes explicit reference to ‘social theory’ and refers to periods and movements using descriptors of interest to social theorists: ‘modern social theory,’ ‘revolution and romanticism,’ the classical period of modern social thought,’ ‘social theory between the great wars,’ and ‘post-modernism, globalization, and the new century.’
  2. As a textbook in a history department for a class in the history of ideas. The schools of thought represented in this collection are impressively diverse: pragmatism, feminism, anarchism, psychoanalysis, linguistics, conservatism, neo-pragmatism, liberalism, positivism etc. Such a class could showcase their historical location and their relationship to other theoretical formations of the same time period.
  3. As a sourcebook for a composition or writing class showing examples of writing styles as deployed in social theory, critique, and analysis (or as samples of styles deployed in particular historical periods.) These samples could be analyzed for their idiosyncratic or standard deployment of particular literary tropes, their use of classical and non-standard figures of speech, their use of rhetoric etc.
  4. As a sourcebook for studying the quality of translations (many of the original sources were originally written in French, German, Spanish, Latin, Italian etc.) By comparing these with different translations of the same material students could evaluate the resultant differences in tone, meaning, and literary style.
  5. As a portion of a syllabus in history of a particular period–for instance, ‘European History Between The Great Wars’–which addresses the evolution in social thought during the period in question.
  6. As a sourcebook for studying social thought as indexed by region of origin – ‘English social thought’, ‘American social thought’, ‘French social thought’ etc.

And so on.

My use of this anthology in a class titled ‘Social Philosophy’ is, at least on one reckoning, a slightly non-standard one. The syllabus for this particular offering of the department has been, historically, what would have been called ‘Classical Social and Political Philosophy.’ That is, I would have covered figures and themes considered to lie in the so-called ‘classical canon’: Plato, Aristotle, Mill, Machiavelli, and so on. (The ‘contemporary’ version of this class would have concentrated on ‘twentieth-century social and political philosophy.) Instead, by taking the ‘social’ in the title seriously–and not just as a shortening of ‘social and political’–I chose to cover material that would have been within the purvey of a traditional ‘social theory’ class in a sociology department. This decision–if the discussions with my students has provided any indication–was a good one; the resultant focus on the relationship between society and individual was one distinct from the kind usually achieved in a more standard treatment (in large part due to the fact that members of the ‘social theory’ canon often do not find inclusion in philosophy reading lists.)

The point, of course, is that the disciplinary or departmental classification of a textbook–the material it contains–is not a definitive matter. That material can be pressed into the service of many different kinds of intellectual or pedagogical objectives. As such, the question of whether the reading is ‘philosophy’ or ‘sociology’ or ‘history’ becomes a question of its location in a particular interpretive framework of study.

 

Artificial Intelligence And Go: (Alpha)Go Ahead, Move The Goalposts

In the summer of 1999, I attended my first ever professional academic philosophy conference–in Vienna. At the conference, one titled ‘New Trends in Cognitive Science’, I gave a talk titled (rather pompously) ‘No Cognition without Representation: The Dynamical Theory of Cognition and The Emulation Theory of Mental Representation.’ I did the things you do at academic conferences as a graduate student in a job-strapped field: I hung around senior academics, hoping to strike up conversation (I think this is called ‘networking’); I tried to ask ‘intelligent’ questions at the talks, hoping my queries and remarks would mark me out as a rising star, one worthy of being offered a tenure-track position purely on the basis of my sparking public presence. You know the deal.

Among the talks I attended–a constant theme of which were the prospects of the mechanization of the mind–was one on artificial intelligence. Or rather, more accurately, the speaker concerned himself with evaluating the possible successes of artificial intelligence in domains like game-playing. Deep Blue had just beaten Garry Kasparov in an unofficial chess-human world championship in 1997, and such questions were no longer idle queries. In the wake of Deep Blue’s success the usual spate of responses–to news of artificial intelligence’s advance in some domain–had ensued: Deep Blue’s success did not indicate any ‘true intelligence’ but rather pure ‘computing brute force’; a true test of intelligence awaited in other domains. (Never mind that beating a human champion in chess had always been held out as a kind of Holy Grail for game-playing artificial intelligence.)

So, during this talk, the speaker elaborated on what he took to be artificial intelligence’s true challenge: learning and mastering the game of Go. I did not fully understand the contrasts drawn between chess and Go, but they seemed to come down to two vital ones: human Go players relied, indeed had to, a great deal on ‘intuition’, and on a ‘positional sizing-up’ that could not be reduced to an algorithmic process. Chess did not rely on intuition to the same extent; its board assessments were more amenable to an algorithmic calculation. (Go’s much larger state space was also a problem.) Therefore, roughly, success in chess was not so surprising; the real challenge was Go, and that was never going to be mastered.

Yesterday, Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo system beat the South Korean Go master Lee Se-dol in the first of an intended five-game series. Mr. Lee conceded defeat in three and a half hours. His pre-game mood was optimistic:

Mr. Lee had said he could win 5-0 or 4-1, predicting that computing power alone could not win a Go match. Victory takes “human intuition,” something AlphaGo has not yet mastered, he said.

Later though, he said that “AlphaGo appeared able to imitate human intuition to a certain degree” a fact which was born out to him during the game when “AlphaGo made a move so unexpected and unconventional that he thought “it was impossible to make such a move.”

As Jean-Pierre Dupuy noted in his The Mechanization of Mind, a very common response to the ‘mechanization of mind’ is that such attempts merely simulate or imitate, and are mere fronts for machinic complexity–but these proposals seemingly never consider the possibility that the phenomenon they consider genuine or the model for imitation and simulation can only retain such a status as long as simulations and imitations remain flawed. As those flaws diminish, the privileged status of the ‘real thing’ diminishes in turn. A really good simulation,  indistinguishable from the ‘real thing,’ should make us wonder why we grant it such a distinct station.